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Posted March 29, 2003
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A Haitian Survivor Mourns, and Keeps Fighting


By DAVID GONZALEZ, The New York Times

THE Haitian government wants Michèle Montas to believe that common criminals killed her husband, Jean Dominique. Never mind that he was the country's most famous journalist and fiercest critic of government corruption.

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Richard Patterson for The New York Times
"I am fighting to get justice. Not just for Jean, but the country we fought for." Michele Montas

Never mind that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and several government ministers reportedly huddled with the investigating judge before indictments were issued on Monday. Never mind that someone tried to kill Ms. Montas herself on Christmas Day, forcing her to silence Radio Haïti-Inter, the station that she and her husband had run since the 1970's.

In the through-the-looking-glass world of Haitian justice, the indictment did not identify whoever ordered the April 3, 2000, assassination of Mr. Dominique. It did not indicate a motive for why he was shot seven times, nor for a series of other killings linked to the case. It merely named the same six men — ex-convicts and former policemen — who have been imprisoned for the crime for the last two years, and who Ms. Montas says were just the shooter and his accomplices.

Ms. Montas, a veteran of the "risky business" of journalism in Haiti, where dozens of reporters have had to flee into exile, had long feared a whitewash. But not one this brazen. Until she knows who ordered the shooting, she will stay in exile in New York, filing appeals from afar.

"We've had at least five people die in this case," she said. "One suspect was lynched, another disappeared. The judge is in exile in Miami. How can they say that they cannot identify a brain behind this. Maybe the word brain is too strong. Maybe I should say the money."

Easy money from drugs, sweetheart deals or old-fashioned corruption drives much of Haiti these days, Ms. Montas charges, while Mr. Aristide and his Lavalas party offer no solutions and empty words.

A homecoming queen turned crusading journalist, she is tall and elegant. Her hair pulled back smartly, she looks you straight in the eye. On her blouse is a button with Jean's smiling visage. It reads, "Jean Dominique is Alive in Every Grain of Rice." The sentiment is both symbolic and literal: he worked for years with peasant groups, and his ashes were scattered in the waters that feed the Artibonite Valley, once Haiti's breadbasket.

Her anger at how things went so wrong does not come from some middle-class fear of the impoverished Haitian masses, but from a deep sense of betrayal by Mr. Aristide. She and her husband, like many Haitians, were inspired by the former Roman Catholic priest, and hoped democracy would flourish in their country after the departure in 1986 of President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc.

"It was unthinkable this would happen under Lavalas, a party Jean worked to put in power," she said. "We thought things would change for participation and transparency. In fact, nothing has changed and impunity reigns. In fact, it is reinforced by the apparent inability of the president to control the violence."

THE violence that has plagued Haiti through much of its 200 years touched her privileged upbringing when François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, consolidated his dictatorial rule in the late 1950's. She was the comfortable daughter of two university professors, and she was angry at the repression sweeping through her country that claimed the lives of an aunt and several cousins.

But even in that chaos, she found inspiration that would later become her journalistic creed. In 1959, Papa Doc sent his thugs to arrest a colonel and son who lived next door to the Montas family. She still recalls how the volleys of gunfire echoed through the neighborhood as she imagined the father and son in a fierce gun battle. Instead, it was the colonel's daughter who was keeping the thugs at bay.

"She was covering their retreat, and I never forgot that," Ms. Montas said. "A women showed me she could do it. It meant we were not powerless. That one person could make a difference."

Ms. Montas studied journalism at the University of Maine and Columbia University, returning to Haiti in the early 1970's. She worked for newspapers where her education helped little in overcoming the entrenched culture of journalism as official stenography.

The meeting that would change her life came not at a radio station or newspaper, but at the movies, where she encountered a rugged yet rakish pipe-smoking man who, like her, thought nothing of seeing three movies in a day. He was Jean Dominique, a former agronomist who had become a groundbreaking radio journalist, broadcasting stories about politics and culture in Creole, not French.

She joined him at the station, and they became an elegant couple who did stories on controversial topics that tested how far they could push the limits — Jean called it sniffing. They paid for their daring, as advertisers fearful of government reprisals withdrew. By 1980, they were forced into exile in New York, where she worked producing radio programs for the United Nations.

They returned when Baby Doc left, and they resumed broadcasting, as Mr. Aristide built the popular movement that brought him to power in a 1990 election. A year later, he was ousted in a military coup, the radio station was shot at and ransacked, and the couple were once again in exile in New York.

"We were amazed that could happen," she said. "Everything we had put into this, our hopes, had failed. When Duvalier had left, we felt there would be a new life. Of course, that did not happen. But you had thought everything was possible."

She would find out upon her return in 1994 that Haiti seemed even harsher and Mr. Aristide, restored during an American-led invasion, seemed remote and cautious. Mr. Dominique soon worried about what he saw as corrupt politicians and businessmen getting too close to Mr. Aristide, who did little to distance himself, he said.

By late 1999, Mr. Dominique stepped up his criticism during his broadcasts, singling out for special scorn Dany Toussaint, a close adviser to Mr. Aristide long suspected of drug running and political murders. The following year, he was shot dead.

NOTHING surprises her now, least of all the fact that it took nearly three years to bring the indictments for the murder or that they did not identify who ordered the crime.

It is only the latest in a string of disappointments that started with seeing the leader she and her husband once loved become just another Haitian politician, she said, paying street groups to rally for him, or worse.

"When he first lost power, then came back, he felt that was not going to happen again," she said of the president. "If that meant corruption, so be it. Jean-Bertrand Aristide feels he can solve anything by throwing money at problems. That is so different from the man I once knew, the priest, the man of the people. Power is now the name of the game."

Mr. Dominique's death silenced neither Ms. Montas nor the radio station, until recently. As the government missed deadline after deadline for issuing indictments, a gunman attacked her home this past Dec. 25, killing her bodyguard. A few weeks later, she closed the station after her reporters continued to receive threats.

TODAY Ms. Montas waits in New York, refusing the government's entreaties that she return. "Members of the government ask us to reopen the station because they say we are giving them a bad image," she said. "People have died, but this is giving them a bad image?"

The only image she dwells on now, is the one of Jean on a video monitor, as she helps with "The Agronomist," a documentary about her husband produced by the American director Jonathan Demme. A few weeks ago, she sat inside Mr. Demme's suburban New York studio, unblinking as she watched Jean speak of Haiti, justice and exile.

When he smiled, she smiled. When he spoke, her shoulders moved ever so slightly as she breathed that much faster. And when his image faded away, she let out a nearly silent sigh as her eyes moved away from the screen.

"I feel sadness and betrayal," she said. "Anger. A lot of anger. Anger got me into this business in the first place. To me, Jean's assassination changed the meaning of my life. I am fighting to get justice. Not just for Jean, but the country we fought for."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times of March 29, 2003.

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