Former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has yet to explain why he decided to return to Haiti after 25 years of exile, but some human rights activists and legal experts believe he may have had financial, rather than political reasons.
AFP - The mystery of Jean-Claude Duvalier's return to Haiti, out of the blue and in a moment of national chaos and instability, may be explained not by a thirst for power but another gnawing human need: money.
The former dictator has not said why he suddenly flew home after nearly 25 years in exile other than to help with post-quake reconstruction, but human rights activists and experts believe it may have been a maneuver to prevent the confiscation of at least $5.7 million in frozen Swiss bank accounts.
"It would seem to be the most plausible explanation when you put these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together," said Reed Brody, counsel to Human Rights Watch and a former prosecutor in Haiti.
The theory, which has gained wide currency in Haiti, stems from a law passed by Switzerland that goes into effect on February 1 which would allow for the confiscation of the last of Duvalier's frozen assets and their return to Haiti.
Known as the Duvalier law, it stipulates that Switzerland can confiscate illicit assets and return them to the affected country even if that state has not taken legal action.
The law sets forth two conditions, however -- that the failure to take action had been because of the weakness of the state's structures, or the unavailability for trial of the affected person.
"That means that Switzerland could confiscate the money and repatriate it to Haiti, without Haiti having to prosecute Duvalier," said Brody in a telephone interview.
"But if Duvalier goes back to Haiti and is not prosecuted, then he could say I was available for prosecution, and you didn't prosecute me: Give me my money back."
The former president-for-life, 59, showed up unexpectedly in Port-au-Prince on an Air France flight on January 17 with what a diplomatic source said was a return ticket for January 20.
He may have hoped to enter and leave the country unnoticed, but he was charged the following day with corruption and misappropriation of funds, and has now been barred from leaving the country.
Duvalier, who reportedly has been living in relative poverty in France since a costly divorce, came close to getting the Swiss monies early last year.
On January 12, 2010, the Swiss supreme court tribunal ordered that at least $4.6 million of the fortune be unfrozen and released to Duvalier, saying the statue of limitations had run out.
But on the very same day, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing some 220,000 people and leaving the capital in ruins and more than a million people homeless.
The disaster set off an uproar in Switzerland over the court decision, which prompted the Swiss government to issue an emergency decree blocking the release of the Duvalier money until a new law could be passed.
The Swiss government alleges that Duvalier looted between $400 million and $900 million dollars from Haiti during his 15 years in power at the head of a notoriously corrupt and violent regime founded in 1957 by his father, Francois Duvalier.
"None of it has been recovered. Period," said Irwin Stotzky, a human rights lawyer at the University of Miami who helped win a $500,000 judgment against Duvalier in 1988.
"Some of it has been traced to Swiss banks, some of it we traced to their French banks many years ago."
After being driven into exile in February 1986 following a popular uprising, Duvalier's remaining fortune apparently slipped away, with much of it reportedly going to his ex-wife, Michele, in a divorce.
"I laugh when I hear the amounts: $400 million, $800 million. It's a lot of blah, blah, blah," Duvalier told the Wall Street Journal in 2003, when he was living in Paris in a modest one bedroom apartment paid for by a friend.
Sources have said he has been staying in a private house in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, and spending his days at an upscale hotel.
His mere presence in the country, still in chaos after the earthquake and a cholera epidemic and now plunged into a volatile presidential election dispute, has raised fears and conjectures of all kinds.
"The only thing that seems to make sense is probably the money issue," said Alex Dupuy, a Haitian-born sociologist at Wesleyan University.
"If he is as desperate for money as they've been reporting then that might have been sufficient reason for him to try to go to Haiti and stay there a few days and then leave the country," he said.
Whatever Duvalier's motives for returning, it was not a good idea, his lawyer Charles Gervais admitted.
"Nobody expected him in Haiti and he came to Haiti as someone the world had forgotten about. But since he got here, the media has been there, and human rights organizations are making claims. It was an ill time for him to come to Haiti," he said.