Thousands follow ex-Haiti president after court

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Associated Press

Posted on May 8, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 8 at 5:07 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a rare public appearance Wednesday and thousands of supporters shadowed the ex-leader's motorcade following a court hearing.

The two-time president showed up at a courthouse in downtown Port-au-Prince with a delegation of longtime allies to testify before a judge investigating the slaying of one of the Caribbean country's most prominent journalists. The hearing was closed to the public.

Aristide waved to a small group of onlookers outside the court before his session with an investigative magistrate to answer questions about the April 2000 killing of radio journalist Jean Dominique. Former President Rene Preval answered questions in the case early this year. Both men were friends of Dominique.

Aristide left the courthouse through a back exit three hours later. In an apparent ploy to prevent journalists from following the former president, news media were told to assemble in a nearby room for a news conference with Aristide, which was never held.

Aristide's lawyer, Mario Joseph, said he couldn't disclose details of discussions about the case. "What's important is that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide came and answered questions," he said.

Crowds gathered to get a glimpse of Aristide as his car passed through a series of neighborhoods, and he even stood atop his vehicle in the shantytown of Bel-Air and waved to supporters.

Haitian police had banned street protests both supporting and opposing Aristide because it needed its officers to provide security for the former leader's convoy.

Despite the police order, thousands of Aristide supporters spilled into downtown Port-au-Prince and followed his silver Toyota Land Cruiser, which sported a pair of Haitian flags in the front.

"The population clearly said it's not a protest — it's a march accompanying President Aristide," Maryse Narcisse, a spokeswoman for his political party, told Radio Kiskeya.

The gathering constituted the largest demonstration against President Michel Martelly's government this year, and among the biggest since he took office two years ago this month.

"We don't have two presidents," said Jean Altidor, 39. "We have one president and our president is Jean-Bertrand Aristide."

The case of the killed journalist has been largely dormant for years, and Aristide's supporters have wondered if there are political motivations behind the revived case. An open case against Aristide, the official leader of the Lavalas party, could make it difficult for candidates to register under the party in elections that are supposed to be held before year's end.

"We hope this isn't political, that the government isn't using the Jean Dominique case so Lavalas can't qualify for the elections," an Aristide supporter, Jean Cene, said while pressed against a barricade.

A few people carried placards that read: "The more you persecute him, the more we love him."

Lavalas leaders say the party plans to run in the legislative and local election that was supposed to have been held in late 2011. The still unscheduled vote seeks to fill 10 Senate seats along with dozens of municipal posts.

There was no immediate comment by the Martelly administration.

Aristide is among Haiti's most popular political figures. The former Roman Catholic priest was a champion of the country's impoverished masses and led a movement to oust dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Aristide alienated Haiti's wealthy elite and was forced from power twice, first by a military junta in 1991 and again by a rebellion in 2004.

He returned to Haiti in 2011 following exile in South Africa.

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Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.

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