When we entered the maximum security prison in upstate New York, we were ordered to take off our jackets, empty our pockets, and stow our belongings in a locker before entering the facility. We were not allowed to bring anything with us, not even a pen and paper. The guards told us it was for our own safety, because many inmates at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility were dangerous criminals, convicted murderers.
The inmate we were meeting, however, was awaiting trial, not for murder or rape or assault, but for mortgage fraud. Why would a man on trial for mortgage fraud be held in a maximum security prison? Because this inmate is Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, former leader in Haiti, and many say, a power hungry dictator responsible for the rape, torture and murder of thousands of Haitians.
Constant rose to power in the 1990s after the fall of Jean Bertrand Aristide. He led the FRAPH, what he called a "political party" but is called a "death squad" by human rights groups. He fled Haiti in 1994 after Aristide came back to power and lived freely in the United States, despite Haitian trials convicting him in absentia of human rights abuses.
The charges against him are numerous and horrific. But Constant met with us to explain his side of the story, why he says he is a patriot who loves his country, why the charges against him are false, and why he feels this mortgage fraud trial is a way to punish him for allegations from his past in Haiti.
We waited more than half an hour before the guards brought him to the waiting area. I was eager to meet this man whose face and name I’m told inspires fear in Haitians even to this day. I read a story about a Haitian woman who saw Constant on a New York City subway when he first moved here and she fainted in fear.
When he finally walked into the room, Constant smiled affably and was polite. Almost immediately, he began explaining why he feels he’s being targeted in this case and why he’s been scapegoated for all of Haiti's many problems. He was charismatic, a very fine storyteller and had an air of sincerity. Whether that was real or a result of years of practice, it was hard to tell.
At the end of the visit he seemed almost regretful to leave us, and he agreed to meet us again for an on camera interview. We’ll share his words with you.
Opening arguments in his trial began today, and Constant is expected to take the stand at some point in his own defense... In defense of the mortgage fraud charges, that is. We don't expect he'll talk much about rape, torture and murder.
Filed under: Crime & Punishment
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