PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti on Tuesday filed embezzlement and corruption charges against former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc'' Duvalier, who is accused of torturing thousands of Haitians and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars during his 15-year reign.
Haiti's top prosecutor brought the charges against Duvalier in a day of high drama surrounding the onetime despot, who stunned Haitians on Sunday when he stepped off an Air France flight at the international airport.
After a hearing that lasted more than five hours, complaints of corruption, misappropriation of public funds and criminal conspiracy were filed. The charges could be dismissed or sustained by a judge who will now investigate whether there's sufficient evidence to go to trial. The process could take months.
Duvalier, 59, was picked up by police early Tuesday amid a flurry of activity at the posh Karibe Hotel in Pétionville, where he has been staying. Judge Gabriel Ambroise and Haitian attorney Reynold Georges arrived at the hotel about 10:30 a.m., as Haitian police officers were asked to secure the premises. A helicopter buzzed overhead.
Duvalier said nothing as police, guns in hand, escorted him out the back of the building. Scores of journalists trailed the convoy as he was transported to the courthouse.
Duvalier has been mum about his reasons for returning to Haiti, and neither prosecutors nor the minister of justice made public statements about the charges or what comes next.
Gervais Charles, who has represented Duvalier in the past, said the statute of limitations on the charges had expired. He called the move "a scandal.''
Human rights attorneys greeted the news with caution.
"It could be a very good step in the right direction if the Haitian justice system truly pursues this case,'' said Brian Concannon, director of Haiti's Institute for Justice and Democracy. "It could also be a whitewash if they don't pursue him and find a reason to let him go.''
On Monday, Duvalier had spent time receiving visits from members of the secret police that once terrorized the country, fueling fears that his return would deepen a political crisis sparked by the nation's disputed Nov. 28 presidential elections.
No winner emerged and the streets of Haiti have been roiled by violence as activists try to influence which candidates would engage in a runoff.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the French government notified the United States about Duvalier's arrival in Haiti "roughly an hour before'' he landed at Port-au-Prince's international airport on Sunday.
"We don't believe at this point Haiti needs any more distractions,'' said spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"Our focus right now is to help Haiti through this delicate period, have a new government emerge that is credible enough and legitimate enough and viewed positively in the eyes of the Haitian people so that the country, with international support, including the United States, can move ahead with the ongoing efforts to rebuild Haiti.''
Duvalier's return stirred confusion and protest. The United States and Canada denounced his return.
"This was no plot. We did not know he was coming,'' said Didier Le-Bret, France's ambassador to Haiti. He learned of the looming arrival only once Duvalier boarded an Air France flight from Guadeloupe, the Caribbean archipelago 730 miles away.
Le-Bret said he immediately notified Haiti's foreign affairs minister and prime minister. "He's not a focal point of the French government,'' Le-Bret said. "He's a simple French citizen; he's allowed to do what he wants to do.''
Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 after the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
The father and son presided over one of the most brutal chapters in Haitian history, a period when a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents. The private militia of sunglasses-wearing thugs enforced the Duvalier dynasty's absolute power and lived off extortion.
At Fort Dimanche, a fortress prison, Haitians were executed or died of malnutrition during the 1957-1986 Duvalier dictatorships. Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 30,000 Haitians were killed between the presidency of Duvalier and his father.
Duvalier has also been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.
Duvalier and his family spent years living in luxury on the French Riviera, driving fancy sports cars and staying in exclusive villas. Following financial difficulties, Duvalier moved to the Paris region in 1993. He allegedly lost a large part of his fortune when he was separated from his free-spending wife. The Duvalier clan has waged a long-running battle to retrieve at least $4.6 million frozen in a Swiss bank.
For most of his exile, the ex-despot was quiet. But in September 2007, Duvalier took to Haitian radio from abroad to apologize for "wrongs" committed under his rule and urged supporters to rally around his fringe political party.
In Washington, Florida Rep. Connie Mack, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, frankly told MSNBC's Morning Joe that, "we don't know what's going on in Haiti.''
He struggled to elaborate: "I mean there's been so much corruption in Haiti,'' he said. "Obviously after the tragic events in Haiti, there was a lot of outpouring of support from this country, from the citizens of this country. But we're not seeing it being managed properly and we're not seeing that we're getting the results that we want.''
The Obama administration also expressed concern and worry that Duvalier's sudden appearance could have "an unpredictable impact'' on Haiti's delicate political state.
Haiti's government, meanwhile, sought to downplay Duvalier's presence and its impact on the country as it wrestles with who will follow President René Préval's five-year presidential term.
The government announced that a controversial report on the presidential elections will officially be handed over to the Provisional Electoral Council, which will determine which candidates among the three front-runners should advance to a runoff.
José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said Monday that he "had no opinion'' on Duvalier's visit. Instead, he sought to downplay the impact of an OAS election report proposing that popular singer Michel "Sweet Micky'' Martelly replace Préval's preferred candidate, Jude Célestin, in the runoff.
The report, Insulza said, is based on "calculations'' and not results.
But the focus this week was less on who would enter the runoff and more on Duvalier. Throughout the capital, victims relived trauma as "Baby Doc'' friends and supporters argued that the country was better during his rule.
"After 25 years, we are nostalgic,'' said an elderly woman, who gave only her surname, Gerard Destin, after a visit to Duvalier. "He wants peace, unity and love.''
Duvalier's companion, Veronique Roy, spoke to an Associated Press reporter by phone from inside the court and when asked if Duvalier had been arrested, said, "Absolutely not.''
Before being released, he was at the Parquet, the name of a downtown courthouse used for some of Haiti's more serious prosecutions.
Outside, a crowd gathered and changed "Arrest Préval,'' seemingly expressing their dissatisfaction with Duvalier's detention.
Human rights groups in Haiti and the United States had demanded Duvalier's arrest as victims, such as United Nations official Michele Montas, relived trauma from the Duvalier's reign of terror.
"I am outraged, angry and dismayed that this could happened,'' said Montas, a former journalist and radio station owner who spent six years in exile after being jailed for 10 days, then expelled in 1980.
Montas said she had no explanation for her treatment. She said she planned to file a civil action against Duvalier for "arbitrary arrest, forced exile, torture.''
"What bothers me the most is the fact that so many people seem to have forgotten what happened,'' she said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.