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Making examples of Haitian attaches

According to his neighbors, Pascal Hilaire had a license to kill.

He is accused of being one of Haiti's brutal paramilitary gunmen. Acting with impunity, he allegedly terrorized the Delmas neighborhood where he lived in the capital.

But since Sunday _ the day after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power _ he has been behind bars. Thursday he was arraigned in court _ the first paramilitary "attache" to face his accusers in the newly democratic country.

"Justice" is the word on almost all Haitian lips. Many thought the murderers and torturers of Haiti's military regime, which seized power three years ago, never would be brought to justice.

Now that the top military commanders have been banished into exile and democracy slowly is being introduced, the clamor for justice is perhaps the most immediate demand of a population eager to see its rights respected, and for the abuses of the past to be corrected.

American officials and foreign observers want Haitians to believe their justice system works. That would persuade some who might take the law into their hands and exact popular vengeance that they can put their faith in the return to democracy. The United States fears that if the attaches are not put on trial quickly, the mood of citizens could sour toward American troops, much as happened in Somalia.

Cheers went up from the crowd that gathered Thursday outside the main Port-au-Prince police station as Hilaire was brought out of the jail, handcuffed to another prisoner.

"Attaches! Assassins!" they cried.

A U.S. Cobra attack helicopter circled the police station, monitor ing security in the area. Hilaire sat expressionless in the back of a U.S. military truck with 19 prisoners, including other accused attaches, as he was transported the short distance to the courthouse. They were escorted through the city center by U.S. military police in vehicles with mounted machine guns, several blue-uniformed Haitian police and half a dozen international police monitors from Argentina.

The prisoners were placed in a holding cell at the courthouse as a mob tried to barge through the doors. For a time it was bedlam, as witnesses and prisoners exchanged insults through the iron cell bars. Some of the prisoners tried to break out through a window near the ceiling but succeeded only in smashing it, showering glass over their cellmates.

Eventually the prisoners were frisked by Haitian police and taken into court for the arraignment. Then they were transported to jail in the national penitentiary.

Standing quietly in the court building was Melina Petion, wife of Nazare Petion, one of the men Hilaire is accused of killing last October. Despite being afraid, she came to court to give evidence.

She brought her four children, carrying the smallest in her arms. "Look what that man did to my family. We are poor people. I have four children and how am I to feed them on my own?" she asked.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Aristide promised a complete overhaul of government, included major judicial reform.

"We have to listen to the victims and we have to stop the violence," he said. "There can be no justice without reconciliation and no reconciliation without justice."

But of the monumental problems faced by Aristide, none will be more difficult to handle than the issue of justice. There never has been real justice inHaiti. Aristide's preferred choice for justice minister was assassinated by gunmen linked to the military ayear ago. Haitian judges are notoriously corrupt, prison conditions are appalling and resources are scarce.

In a court case last week observed by international police monitors, Judge Evaniste Cineas, released a murder suspect after a two-minute trial for lack of evidence. An Argentine monitor, Capt. Claudio Malay, pointed out to the judge that the victim's mother, who was a witness to the killing, was at the hospital morgue a couple of streets away with the dead man's body and could be called to testify.

"Well, he's dead now. What differance does it make?" said the judge as he closed the case.

Malay was shocked. "Life has no value here."

What's more, the police have no experience in preparing and investigating cases. Under the old system, the police were under the control of corrupt military officers. According to police monitors sent to Haiti, the locals need to be trained from scratch.

Police also are too afraid to do their job; many have fled. "There is a psychology of fear. We are threatened by the people now. They want to humiliate us," said Cpl. Samuel Melon, 28, a Haitian police officer with 11 years service.

"We are not safe in the streets," he said, explaining that to go home in the evening he must first remove his uniform so as not to be identified. He said he hopes to leave the police and train for another job, arguing that no amount of new training and protection from monitors will make him feel secure. "They (the monitors) can't do anything good for me," he said.

"I know these people. You can't punish them," said Peter Alzugaray, 47, an international police monitor who retired from the Miami police six months ago. "You have to teach them (the police), you have to treat them like kids. They have never been exposed to ethics and professionalism. They were taught only one way: to beat it out of people."

The commander of the police monitors, former New York City police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, said he hoped to get the current police ranks to quickly weed out "the bad guys" so that members of the new civilian police force can start training at an academy to be run by U.S. trainers.

American Military Police and Haitian police began joint patrols for the first time yesterday, as an effort to increase the police presence in Port-au-Prince.

"It is fundamental to our job that we get men on the street," he said. "Right now we don't have a Haitian police presence on the streets. They are in the precincts, playing dominoes and just hanging around."

But Kelly is not overawed by his task. "We can't change things overnight. It needs a lot of changes. But I'm optimistic. I think good things are going to happen here."