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PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - When the Jan. 12 earthquake sent a shockwave through his office, Mario Joseph thought it was a bomb attack. After all, Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyer is used to coming under fire.
“Someone was shot in my office,” he said. “I receive a lot of threats.”
It was only when he ventured outside that he realised what had happened. He saw toppled buildings and people screaming in the street. One women’s head had been crushed by falling rubble. He tried to give first aid. At the Palace of Justice, he helped carry the body of a colleague he knew from court.
“It was really terrible to see that,” he recalled. “We had no radio, no TV. The world was really blocked off. The traffic was really bad. And we had a lot of gangs on the street … I don’t think human beings can see things like this. It’s really terrible, for your mind.”
About two-thirds of Haiti’s prisoners escaped after the quake destroyed or damaged eight of the country’s prisons. All 4,215 inmates of the devastated national penitentiary fled into the ruins of the city.
But it’s not gangsters and fugitives who have prayed on Joseph’s mind since the catastrophe.
It’s the sharp rise in human rights abuses from an already alarming number before the disaster – especially cases of sexual violence in the camps and tent cities, where 1.2 million people still live in dark, crowded and insecure accommodation.
“Before January 12th, we worked on rape cases,” he said. “Now I can say these have tripled. The problem is, the justice system doesn’t respond to the problem.”
Joseph, 47, has long been known as the man to call if you need someone to fight your corner against rights abuses, whether rape, illegal imprisonment or forced eviction from land. As director of the Bureau des Avocats International (BAI), he has built a reputation as a tireless defender of the dispossessed and the vulnerable.
He also has a reputation as a supporter of Fanmi Lavalas, the populist party of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, though Joseph claims to have no specific mandate as a Lavalas lawyer. The party was excluded from Haiti’s recent presidential elections on the grounds it failed to meet the legal requirements for registration.
Outside his office just off Avenue John Brown, dozens of men and women gather every day to hold meetings and seek advice on their legal rights. Grassroots women’s groups involved in supporting rape victims in the camps also use BAI as a base.
“I have some (rape) cases here in my office, with evidence,” he said. “We have a warrant but the police failed to arrest the people, because they don’t care about the rights of the people. They don’t do their job … It’s a culture of impunity.”
Joseph grew up in a village near the northern city of Gonaives. He said it was a “miracle” he became a lawyer at all because his family was dirt poor.
He received his education at a missionary school – a rare opportunity in an area with no other local schools. The rights abuses he saw in the village every day fuelled a growing sense of injustice, and he resolved to put himself through law school.
“The biggest barrier to the rule of law is corruption,” Joseph said. “The system of justice in Haiti is very, very corrupt. Not because Haitian people are bad, but because we have a bad system … The problem is we don’t invest money to allow the juries and the prosecutors to live without corruption or bribery.”
Not surprisingly, Joseph has made enemies.
“When I talk on the radio, I am not talking about light, superficial change,” he said. “We need to have a deep change in the system. And you know the problem is we have a lot of people who like the system. They make money from it. It’s no problem for them that people don’t go to school or have healthcare.”
Joseph said he had received so many death threats that his wife and daughters have had to seek asylum in Miami.
Does he ever think of giving up and joining them there?
“We need to continue to fight to change the situation,” he said. “The fight to promote the rule of law in Haiti is a good fight. We will continue to do that.”