We have been brainstorming with our partners in Haiti about collaborating on a case that could have far reaching effects in helping to reform Haiti’s penal and justice systems. The case is in its very early stages, but it does illustrate how dynamic and useful new media advocacy can be.
This is Fragil:
We met him during our medical-legal clinic at Mirebalais prison a couple of weeks ago. Evan Lyon, a doctor from Partners in Health, had examined him several months before and remember that his story was particularly compelling.
Quick (big) caveat: we have not yet examined his court records to verify his story — it is possible that he recalls his trial incorrectly, or that he is simply lying. However, we all thought that he was quite credible.
The facts are simple. Fragil is currently serving a life sentence at Mirebalais Prison (one of the horrors of this prison can be seen here and here). He is 23, and his been in prison for 3 years. He had a trial during which he was not represented by counsel and was not given the opportunity to speak in his defense. We don’t know this for sure yet, but it is likely that since he does not speak French, the trial was conducted in a foreign language.
Before I go in, try to wrap you brain around this — a life sentence without being represented by counsel. Admittedly, our own legal system here in the U.S. has several stunning flaws when it comes to the effective assistance of counsel in murder and capital cases, but just imagine — no lawyer, no right to speak in the courtroom, proceedings conducted in a language that you only sort of understand… then a life sentence, after a trial that lasts less than a day. I think we can accurately use the term kafkaesque.
Though now that I think about it, what’s so striking about this case is that is not kafkaesque. If Kafka’s trial is about the ability of bureaucracies to redefine and eventually crush the truth, in Fragil’s case, the staggering violations of due process are simply done out in the open, without any attempt to hide them or justify them. The court told Fragil exactly what it was going to do, and did it — not in months or years, but in less than a day.
So where does new media come in?
We interviewed Fragil in the prison — the interview was crazy. Prisoners were showering, hooting, and yelling, the sky opened up in a massive thunderstorm. Doctors and lawyers ran around in a frenzy, relaying information about clients and patients. But despite the chaos, Fragil’s presence was overpowering. During his interview, he appeared simultaneously defeated and poised. He was clearly broken, but had not lost his humanity — he touched all of us. Later, reviewing the footage, we realized that all of this came through on screen as well. Fragil’s facial expressions communicate the pain of detention in Mirebalais prison, and of punishment without due process far better than any lawyer can.
The interview got us thinking — perhaps we could use Fragil’s story (provided that it all checks out) as a tool to help us expand the reach of the Health and Human Rights in Prisons Project. Several late night brainstorming sessions later, we had several ideas, all of which integrated the video. The Haitian Human Rights Lawyers from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, would represent Fragil, first attempting to get a Presidential pardon (more common in Haiti than in the United States) and, if that failed, possibly bring his case to the Inter-American system. The case would be used to educate the President, and the international community about the Haitian justice system’s ignoring of the right to counsel, the right of confrontation, and the presumption of innocence — three cornerstones of due process.
It was the combining of video with lawyering that allowed us to develop these ideas, and, should we proceed, the video will be an indispensible tool for the lawyers. It will give them the ability to take Fragil’s voice out of his overcrowded prison cell, and deliver it people who have the power to change his fate — which is, as things stand how, a lifetime in the hellhole of Mirebalais prison.