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Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Massacre witness hearings open in Haiti
Defendants appearing for trial
Some defendants have appeared in court
By Central America correspondent Peter Greste

A court in Haiti is to begin hearing witness testimonies on Wednesday into a trial that the Haitian Government has described as critical to the country's emerging democracy.

The former military leader, Raoul Cedras, is one of 58 defendants into what has become known as the Raboteau massacre, which took place in April 1994.

But prosecutors say the case has been hampered by the fact that at least 22 of the defendants are being tried in abstentia.

The basic facts of the Raboteau massacre are simple enough.

This is all about justice. Without the trial, Haiti can never move on

Michele Karshan, Haitian Government spokeswoman

Early on 22 April, 1994, a group of soldiers and civilian paramilitaries raided the seaside slum of Raboteau, in the city of Gonaives.

The attackers forced their way into dozens of homes, beating and arresting those they found inside.

Some were tortured on site, forced to lie in open sewers; others were shot as they tried to flee.

Coup plotters

According to court documents, at least six people were murdered, though human rights lawyers says that anywhere between eight and 15 people died.

Prosecutors say the attack was part of a broad plan to crush opposition to a military coup led by Raoul Cedras.

Mr Cedras is just one of the 22 defendants being tried in absentia.

Raoul Cedras
Raoul Cedras is one of 58 defendants

The list of his co-defendants reads like a cross-section of the coup government and includes everyone from low-ranked troops to Mr Cedras' co-leaders, Michel Francois, and Philippe Biamby, and Emmanuel Constant, who headed the civilian paramilitary movement known as the Fraph.

The fact that the trial is happening at all is unprecedented for Haiti's shaky justice system.

It is the first time members of the Haitian high command and paramilitary leaders have been tried for human rights violations committed under the coup.

According to a spokeswoman for the current government, it is also critical to documenting the history of the coup.

The spokeswoman, Michele Karshan, says it is a chance to reveal the truth about human rights abuses committed during one of Haiti's darkest periods and to give its victims a chance to put the past behind them.

"This is all about justice," she said. "Without the trial, Haiti can never move on."

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