A Haitian police officer was only a few feet away from an unarmed prisoner when he raised his handgun and shot the inmate dead, a witness said Monday in a rare trial that has captivated a coastal town in southwestern Haiti.
Hans Maitre recounted to a crowded courtroom that he peered through the door of his cell to see uniformed police officers dash into the prison and take aim at a handful of prisoners.
"The police entered the courtyard, and they yelled at everyone to get down, get on their stomachs," Maitre said.
Maitre is one of dozens of witnesses expected to testify in a closely watched trial that will test Haiti's historically weak judiciary. Thirteen 13 police officers stand accused of murder, attempted murder and other crimes after they allegedly opened fire on prisoners during a riot one week after the January 2010 earthquake.
Twenty-one other officers will be tried in absentia because they fled Les Cayes for other parts of Haiti as well as Miami and Canada, said lead prosecutor Jean-Marie Salomon. Under Haitian law, absent defendants are entitled to a separate trial should they return or be extradited.
The trial stems from a riot in a prison in Les Cayes that began when some of the 400-plus prisoners tried to escape because they were terrified of aftershocks in the overcrowded prison.
Haitian officers allegedly stormed the prison to prevent a mass escape like the one that occurred in the country's main penitentiary in the capital. They are accused of then rushing into the building and opening fire.
U.N. police saw the bodies of 10 dead prisoners but more people are believed to have been killed and dozens more were wounded.
As the trial rolled into its fourth week Monday, Maitre, the witness, acted out the shooting and described the prisoners choking on tear gas. He said he rubbed toothpaste under his nostrils to keep the stinging gas at bay.
Defense lawyer Jean Renel Senatus responded by saying the witness could not be sure of what he saw if there was so much tear gas.
"When you come here, you can't tell lies because, look, Jesus is here," Senatus said, pointing to a crucifix hanging in the Catholic community center-turned-courtroom. Supporters of the defense cheered.
Judge Ezekiel Vaval has already heard witness testimony from the prosecution. Some of the police officers are slated to testify later this week.
The trial is expected to last several more weeks.
The trial is unique in that few legal cases make it this far because the justice system is widely considered corrupt and dysfunctional. About three-quarters of the 5,000 people imprisoned in Haiti have never even been charged with a crime.
Haiti's judiciary showed signs of progress in 2001 when dozens of former military and paramilitary leaders were tried for their role in a seaside massacre in a city north of Port-au-Prince. But the convictions were later overturned.