PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier appeared in court for the first time Thursday after repeatedly shunning previous summonses, answering questions about whether he should be tried for human rights abuses during his brutal 1971-86 regime.
It was also the first time for the plaintiffs to see the former ruler known as "Baby Doc" answer questions about the widespread abuses associated with his rule.
Activists and opponents applauded as Duvalier arrived in court and sat facing the three-judge panel.
The session was a "historic victory in a country where the rich and powerful have always been above the law," said Reed Brody, counsel and a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. "Who'd have thought that Duvalier would be forced one day to face his victims in a court of law, to submit to questioning about his alleged crimes, and to listen to the names of people who were tortured?"
Duvalier had ignored three earlier summonses without consequences but showed up Thursday after a judge warned he would be jailed if he shunned a fourth.
Thousands were imprisoned, tortured or killed for opposing Duvalier's regime, and he wielded his influence through a private militia known as the Tonton Macoutes. He became president at age 19 after his predecessor and father, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, died. "Baby Doc" was ousted in 1986 in a popular revolt.
Duvalier made a surprising return to Haiti in early 2011 after spending 25 years in exile.
The court is to listen to the plaintiffs next Thursday. Duvalier has not been ordered to attend.