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Bar News - March 19, 2010

Working for Justice: the Challenge of Haiti


The Palace of Justice which houses the Supreme Court of Haiti, the Courts of Appeals and the Courts of First Instance before the quake. A number of attorneys and judges were killed when this courthouse collapsed.

The Palace of Justice after the quake. Maurice Geiger, right, stands with colleague Josh Pazour, a lawyer from Colorado.

The intake room at the National Prison destroyed by a fire allegedly set by detainees the night of the quake.
North Conway attorney Maury Geiger, who has spent a lot of time in Haiti trying to institute reform in the prison system (See Oct. 19, 2007 Bar News), was there when the recent earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince. He had been trying to reduce the number of inmates in the city’s prison, some of whom had been incarcerated for as long as three years without getting to court even once. However, the earthquake reduced the prison to rubble, and Geiger’s mission changed drastically.

Some of the 4800 prisoners were injured or killed, but the rest fled and are now living among the thousands of Haitians whose only home is on the streets, in parks or wherever they can find shelter—and whose lives are a daily struggle just for food and water.

Geiger’s organization, the Rural Justice Center (partially funded by USAID), has a sizable medical component to it, called "Help through Walls." Prisoners in Port-au-Prince were evaluated medically and treated for TB, which is very common in Haiti, for AIDS and beri beri, as well as for other diseases. Now these prisoners, many of them still sick, are without treatment and mixing with the general population.

The Day of the Quake

Geiger took cover under his desk during the quake. He and his staff of six, five of whom were Haitians, escaped without serious injury. They, along with people from surrounding buildings, gathered in the large central parking lot near their office as soon as they were able to leave the building. No one wanted to be inside in case of after-shocks, of which there were many.

Geiger had a small studio apartment in the six-story building where he worked. He never went back to it. As for the office, it was demolished. "Just as I realized what was happening, my laptop flew off the desk….I shouted to my staff to take cover. When we crawled out from under our desks, we saw that bookcases and file cabinets had fallen down and their contents were scattered everywhere—even the pictures had flown off the walls…."

The first thing Geiger saw when he reached the parking lot was a young girl stumbling down the street, bleeding and dragging her injured leg. He and his people tried to help her and other near-by survivors. They set up a make-shift shelter in the parking lot. As evening came on, one of Geiger’s staff members offered him a bed for the night at his home.

The power lines were down and there was no electricity. They moved through the dark, ruined streets, careful not to step on live wires, with only two flashlights to light their way. In Haiti many people build high walls around their properties for privacy and safety; these walls crumbled into the streets during the quake, burying people and automobiles.

General Devastation

Geiger stayed until the following Saturday, five days after the quake, which happened on a Tuesday. The temperature was in the mid-90s on Wednesday and the odor of decaying bodies was indescribable, says Geiger. "During that time I never saw one policeman or fireman. Yet there was little disorder. Haitians are generally a peaceful people; most were still digging through the rubble, trying to find family members."

"On Friday I went to the US Embassy to let them know I was alive," he continues. "Several thousand Americans were missing."

On Saturday he saw some of the UN workers with whom he was acquainted; their headquarters had been badly damaged. The hotel which housed many of the staff members had rolled down a hill, killing about 300 of the UN workers.

"I was able to get on an Army transport plane on Saturday; we flew to Miami," says Geiger. "From there, I flew up to Washington for a couple of days to check in before coming home to New Hampshire."

A New Haiti?

Where is the justice system of Haiti now—where will it go from here—and how will it get there? These are questions which must be addressed as quickly as possible, says Geiger. Consider matters of probate, for instance. "There are thousands dead, with no records, no death certificates available. In a country where written records are often non-existent or poorly managed, how will land disputes alone be settled?"

From his experiences in third-world countries, Geiger has learned to challenge preconceptions about how to achieve social justice. Thousands are homeless in Haiti; particularly at risk are the hundreds of children who are now orphans. All these people are dependent on the charity of others, charity that is sometimes hampered by bureaucracy. "Does it make any sense to ask people to fill out papers to receive food or water when so many can neither read nor write?" he asks.

Geiger has returned to Haiti, although suffering from fatigue and the debilitation of dengue fever, which he first contracted in Bangladesh (See May 7, 2004 Bar News) on a similar mission. Haiti must not only rebuild physically, but also must repair a broken and corrupt justice system. "There are massive problems to be addressed," he says.

He hopes for reform, but unfortunately there are many in Haiti who are not eager to see reform because the present corrupt system provides them with money and other perks that would end with reform.

"But we are hopeful that somehow out of the ruin will come a new determination to build a better Haiti," says Geiger. "Maybe now Haiti can start over."

Read more about the devastation of the justice system in Haiti.

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