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The U.S. planned to send a death squad leader to Haiti. Then it said never mind.

Members of the Clovis, N.M., Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics team handcuff a U.S. airman during a hostile threat exercise at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., June 20, 2012. (Airman 1st Class Eboni Reece/U.S. Air Force)

A notorious Haitian death squad leader and former CIA operative whose paramilitary organization raped, tortured and terrorized political opponents has won a stay of deportation from the United States, the Miami Herald has learned.

Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, who has been living in the U.S. since fleeing Haiti in December 1994 and until recently was an inmate at a New York state prison following his 2008 conviction for mortgage fraud and grand larceny, was given the deportation reprieve after controversy erupted over his planned removal to Haiti next week.

In a story first reported by the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog, Constant was among 101 detainees scheduled to be deported back to Port-au-Prince on Monday aboard an Immigration and Customs Enforcement flight. His name was listed along with 50 other detainees with criminal backgrounds, according to the flight manifest obtained by HRRW. The Herald, which also obtained a copy of the manifest, also confirmed Constant’s name and the presence of individuals with criminal convictions such as sexual assault, cocaine trafficking and larceny.

A source familiar with the upcoming flight, however, told the Herald that Constant, who has been at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavi, New York, since April 2, will not be on the Monday flight.

Neither the U.S. State Department nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to questions from the Herald. It is unclear if Constant, 63, will be deported at a later date or if he will be paroled by DHS, which last attempted to speed his return to Haiti in 2008 after he struck a plea deal that was eventually tossed out.

The federal judge on the case at the time refused DHS’ request that Constant, who was first jailed on the mortgage fraud in 2006, be sentenced to time served so that he could be deported to Haiti. Instead, the judge ordered Constant to stand trial on charges that he cheated lenders out of $1.7 million through a plan using straw buyers. The judge said the murder and torture allegations facing him in Haiti “are heinous, and the court cannot in good conscience consent to the previously negotiated sentence.”

Constant was sentenced in 2008 to up to 37 years in prison.

The son of a military officer, Constant was the founder and leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, which emerged after the military toppled former President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991. He and FRAPH were accused of multiple atrocities, including the 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters in Raboteau, a small town in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.

Constant was first ordered deported from the U.S. in 1995 but was allowed to remain even as human rights lawyers in Haiti demanded his extradition to stand trial on human rights abuses.

In 2000, a Haiti court convicted him and 14 others in absentia for the Raboteau massacre.

While the conviction remains valid, a high court in Haiti in 2005 overturned the conviction of those who had been tried in person in a controversial ruling. In 2006, three women brought a civil lawsuit against Constant in a New York court, saying he sanctioned their gang rape by his forces. He was later ordered to pay $19 million to them.

DHS’ attempt to once more deport Constant has raised questions about U.S. policy toward Haiti, and the country’s ability to even prosecute Constant, whose former sympathizers remain in positions of influence in the fragile nation.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has sent at least two planeloads of deportees back to Haiti, where three so far tested positive for the coronavirus. A major donor to Haiti, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in the country’s weak judiciary and police, criticized its poor human rights record, and most recently pressured Haitian authorities to release prisoners from their overcrowded jails ahead of an expected surge in COVID-19 infections in the country.

Human rights advocates said they are confused by the desire to deport Constant now, when there is no guarantee he would even be jailed or to have a new trial, which he can request under Haitian law due to his conviction in absentia.

When Haiti wanted the U.S. to return him in the mid-90s because the Haitian government wanted to prosecute him, the U.S. refused, they said.

“It’s a very suspicious moment to be handing him back,” said Margaret Satterthwaite, director of the Global Justice Clinic, who was on a truth commission that investigated FRAPH’s abuses in Haiti in the mid-90s. “The U.S. government knows the charges against him; the U.S. government has seen the evidence and they know this is somebody to not just try and sneak back in the country at a time of real crisis.

“In Haiti, there is a crisis of the coronavirus, but of course there is a crisis of governance and corruption,” Satterthwaite added. “Deporting someone of this stature with this much evidence against him is very problematic.”

Robert Maguire, a longtime Haiti expert who served as an expert witness in the New York civil suit against Constant, said the dynamics that brought Constant to power still exist in Haiti, where earlier this year the U.S.-backed Haitian National Police clashed with the country’s reconstituted military. Among those the army counts in its high command are a former FRAPH member and military officers who overthrew Aristide.

“This is not the time to send a man with his track record back to a governing regime that is friendly to people like him,” Maguire said. “He will find many former associations who will have some connection with the government, without a doubt.”

During the civil trial in New York, Maguire testified that as the leader of FRAPH, Constant encouraged “his charges to go out there and rape women and mutilate them because of political issues and he could have stopped that if he wanted to.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said “there’s just nothing right and everything wrong about this story.” Levin spent time in Haiti in the early ‘90s as a human rights observer.

“The idea that the U.S. would deport Toto Constant back to Haiti under these circumstances is terrifying. He’s a war criminal; the Haitian government does not appear to be prepared to hold him to justice, so that is a huge problem in itself,” Levin said.

“Secondly, it seems to reveal the utter lack of communication and coordination between ICE and the State Department and the lack of seriousness in the State Department about the human rights situation in Haiti,” he added.

Levin said the fact that ICE is deporting people in large numbers to Haiti and other countries who may spread COVID-19 in the middle of a global pandemic is also “completely unacceptable from a public health standpoint.”

“Instead of leading the world… the U.S. is avoiding its responsibilities; not participating in donor conferences, not helping poorer countries deal with the crisis,” he said. “In fact we’re not even handling it appropriately here in the United States.”


© 2020 Miami Herald