PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a rare public appearance Wednesday and thousands of supporters shadowed the ex-leader's motorcade following a court hearing.
The swelling crowd of backers who chanted songs and waved posters of Aristide in Haiti's capital pointed to the level of influence the two-time president still holds among the poor more than two years after his sudden return from exile.
It also underscored the strong possibility that his political party could prove a serious contender in legislative elections that are supposed to be held before year's end.
"For the people, the wasps have been knocked out of the nest," said Jean Altidor, a 39-year-old motorcycle driver who had a portrait of Aristide taped to his bike. In his metaphor, Aristide is the nest, and the people are the wasps.
With a delegation of longtime allies and former lawmakers at his side, Aristide showed up at a courthouse Wednesday morning in downtown Port-au-Prince to testify before a judge investigating the slaying of one of the Caribbean country's most prominent journalists, Jean Dominique. The hearing was closed to the public.
Aristide left the crowded courthouse through a back exit three hours later. In an apparent ploy to distract journalists and make it easier for the former president to leave, news media were told to assemble in a nearby room for a news conference with Aristide, which was never held.
Aristide's lawyer, Mario Joseph, said he couldn't disclose details of discussions about the case. "What's important is that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide came and answered questions," he said.
Aristide was between terms as president when Dominique, a close friend, was gunned down in April 2000 in the courtyard of the radio station that he ran with his wife. A security guard was also killed.
Several people were arrested in connection with the slaying of the outspoken radio personality, but authorities have never pointed to possible architects of the killing.
Haitian police had banned street protests both supporting and opposing Aristide because it needed its officers to provide security for the former leader's convoy.
Despite the police order, thousands of Aristide supporters spilled into downtown Port-au-Prince and followed his silver Toyota Land Cruiser, which sported a pair of Haitian flags in the front.
"The population clearly said it's not a protest — it's a march accompanying President Aristide," Maryse Narcisse, a spokeswoman for his political party, told Radio Kiskeya.
Instead of taking a direct route home, the caravan snaked through the capital's poorer neighborhoods as onlookers tried to get a glimpse of Aristide. The crowds grew, and in the hilltop shantytown of Bel-Air, Aristide stood atop his vehicle and waved to supporters.
The gathering constituted the largest demonstration against President Michel Martelly's government this year, and among the biggest since he took office two years ago this month.
The Dominique case has been largely dormant for years, and Aristide's supporters have wondered if there are political motivations behind the revived case. An open case against Aristide, the official leader of the Lavalas party, could make it difficult for candidates to register under the party in elections that are supposed to be held before year's end.
"We hope this isn't political, that the government isn't using the Jean Dominique case so Lavalas can't qualify for the elections," an Aristide supporter, Jean Cene, said while pressed against a barricade.
A few people carried placards that read: "The more you persecute him, the more we love him."
Lavalas leaders say the party plans to run in the legislative and local election that was supposed to have been held in late 2011. The still unscheduled vote seeks to fill 10 Senate seats along with dozens of municipal posts.
There was no immediate comment by the Martelly administration.
Aristide is among Haiti's most popular political figures. The former Roman Catholic priest was a champion of the country's impoverished masses and led a movement to oust dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Aristide alienated Haiti's wealthy elite and was forced from power twice, first by a military junta in 1991 and again by a rebellion in 2004.
He returned to Haiti in 2011 following exile in South Africa.
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.