Haitians protest alleged attack by UN peacekeepers

September 5, 2011 - 10:40 PM
Haiti UN Investigation

In this picture taken Sept. 3, 2011, surrounded by relatives, an 18-year-old man who claims he was sexually abused by Uruguayan peacekeepers lies on his bed at his home in Port Salut, Haiti. A preliminary U.N. investigation has found no evidence for allegations that Uruguayan peacekeepers raped the 18-year-old man, Uruguay's Defense Ministry says, but the troops broke rules by having a civilian in their barracks. The alleged victim was snatched by a soldier outside the front gate of a U.N. base and was taken inside, according to the judge, Paul Tarte, and the alleged victim's mother. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Several hundred Haitians demonstrated Monday in support of an 18-year-old man who says he was sexually assaulted by peacekeepers from Uruguay on a U.N. base along the southern coast of Haiti.

The alleged attack occurred on July 20 but only became public last week when a video taken by cell phone was circulated and the United Nations announced an investigation. The Uruguayan military has called the incident a prank that got out of hand and says a preliminary U.N. investigation shows no evidence of rape.

Haitian President Michel Martelly "vigorously condemned" the alleged assault in the town of Port-Salut, saying in a statement that it was an "act that revolts the national conscience."

Protesters in Port-Salut called for reparations over the alleged assault, which threatened to worsen the reputation of the U.N. in Haiti. Many Haitians view the world body as an occupying force and are still angry over a cholera outbreak that was inadvertently brought to the country by peacekeepers from Nepal last year.

In a statement Sunday, the Uruguayan defense ministry said a U.N. preliminary investigation had found that the men did not sexually abuse the Haitian teen but that they committed misconduct by allowing a civilian into their barrack and could face severe penalties.

The video of the encounter is clearly sexual in nature. However, a U.N. spokeswoman in Haiti, Eliane Nabaa, said the U.N. had not come to any conclusions.

Dr. Clifford Gauthier, a physician who examined the young man a month after the alleged attack, told the AP he found evidence that was consistent with signs of sexual abuse even five weeks after the attack. He said he asked the young man why he waited so long for treatment and didn't get an answer.

Resting on a white sheet in a cinderblock home, the teenager recalled the encounter. "I was scared, very scared," he told The AP on Saturday. The Associated Press typically does not identify possible victims of sexual assault.

His mother said "When I saw the video, I stopped sleeping."

The widely broadcast 50-second version of a cell phone video that surfaced last week showed several Uruguayan troops pinning the young man down on a mattress as they laughed. They helped him up at the end and it was not clear what happened.

A Haitian judge, Paul Tarte, provided the AP with a slightly longer version, purportedly taken directly from a soldier's phone, which is clearer. It shows several Uruguayan troops pinning the young man face down on a mattress, laughing and pulling his pants down. They shout "What's the problem here?" as the man repeatedly responds "No problem."

Then, the Uruguayans laugh as a shirtless peacekeeper stands in between the man's legs and seems to simulate a sex act until others shout "stop, Crazy." The peacekeeper then slaps the man's naked rear end several times and steps away.

For several seconds toward the end of the episode, it's not clear whether the teen is laughing or grimacing.

Uruguayan Navy spokesman Sergio Bique told Uruguay's El Pais newspaper that the preliminary U.N. investigation "doesn't see this as an attempted rape, based on the attitude of the troops, who were all completely clothed."

"This was a joke in bad taste, at a bad time and a bad place," Bique said.

The case has embarrassed Uruguay's military, which has 900 troops among the 12,000 U.N. military and police personnel in Haiti, and it has fed complaints that the U.N. mission has been abusive to the local population.

Uruguay's Defense Ministry has removed its military commander in Haiti, though it did not release his name, and it said on Sunday that officials began investigating the case as soon as they knew of the video. The ministry said it is cooperating with U.N. and Haitian officials and that anyone found guilty would be prosecuted in Uruguay. The country's Navy commander has threatened anyone convicted with a dishonorable discharge and loss of retirement benefits.

The military says the soldiers at least violated rules against having outsiders in their barracks.

The secretary of Uruguay's presidency, Alberto Breccia, said later Monday that the Defense Ministry had presented criminal charges against the peacekeepers. He did not specify the charges.

The episode began when a soldier took the youth into the base in Port-Salut, according to the judge and the mother of the alleged victim.

The Haitian teen often hung out in front of the base, cracking jokes with peacekeepers, according to his own testimony and that of neighbors.

"He's always talking to them," said Fredolain Cazir, 20, who lives beside the compound.

Two young Haitians told the AP they found the image on Aug. 30 after a soldier named Leo gave them his cell phone so they could download local music onto it. They said they recorded the video and passed it to a local journalist.

The U.N. soldiers and police deployed nationwide have been key in supporting Haiti's economy and providing security since the mission arrived in 2004 after former President Jean-Bertrand was toppled in a rebellion.

President Martelly has called for a reduced U.N. presence in Haiti, with troops focusing more on development instead of security matters, and he campaigned for a revival of the Haitian Army, which was dissolved in 1995 because of human rights abuses.

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Daniel contributed reporting from Port-Salut, Haiti, and writer Garces contributed reporting from Montevideo Uruguay.