The family of a Haitian man found lynched in a public square in the Dominican Republic in an apparently racially-motivated killing have accused authorities of trying to cover up the nature of the crime in a bid to dampen growing protests over racism in the country.
Henry 'Tulile' Claude Jean was found hanging from a tree in the city of Santiago on Wednesday with his hands and feet bound. Despite the macabre way in which his body was displayed, authorities were quick to dismiss racism as a possible motive, insisting instead that he had been killed by other Haitians during a theft.
Now his widow, Erzuline Celuma, has claimed in an interview with a Haitian TV station that Dominican authorities have buried his body in secret, without informing the family. Celuma, 22, stepmother to Claude's two daughters aged ten and eight, was joined by his sister who revealed that two of her own children had also been strangled in a similar way and that violence and discrimination against Haitians in the larger, wealthier neighboring state has reached alarming levels.
For Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, the initial response from police, the media and Dominicans themselves to the murder — which took place amid increasing tensions over a law that could see up to 200,000 Haitians deported from the country — has been dismaying. Within hours a senior police officer from the city of Santiago, Damian Arias Matos, had used his personal Twitter account to deny that the killing was racially motivated.
The media, hastily briefed by the police, put out reports that the killing had been perpetrated by two Haitians who stole a winning lottery ticket from the victim.
Many Dominicans — sensitive to their country's swelling reputation for racism — also took to social media to deny the murder was racially aggravated.
VICE News has since learned, from Dominican media sources, that police have now begun to unofficially circulate the theory that Claude participated in a robbery in which a woman died, and that his two accomplices then killed him.
There has, however, been no explanation of why a man well known in the community who had worked as a shoe shine in the park having migrated from Haiti in 2000 would have been lynched in such a manner.
According to an English language report on Celuma's interview — conducted in Creole — by human rights lawyer Ezili Danto, Seluma, clearly traumatized, emotional and often incoherent, told the TV interviewers that her husband did not play the lottery, had no enemies and was "a hard and diligent worker." She said she wanted "justice for her husband" and did not "want to live," adding that with Claude the sole bread winner, she was unsure how she would be able to support her family.
Chief of Police Manuel Castro Castillo has now taken charge of the investigation, after it became clear local police had discarded the hate crime theory without having carried out any investigation. He is now in Santiago and has brought in a group of youths who publicly burned the Haitian flag the evening before the hanging for questioning. No charges have yet been brought.
Activists have rejected outright the claim that Claude was killed by other Haitians.
"Ask the Haitian students I've spoken to studying not far from the park (where he was killed)," Danto said. "They speak about the continual humiliation they must endure, the community cover up, the glee that's been expressed by a good majority of Dominicans in the area of the park."
The killing has even been condemned by the Dominican Republic's more extreme politicians, including Vinicio Castillo Seman, a congressman with the Fuerza Nacional Progresista (National Progressive Force) party, who is a strong advocate of the mass expulsion of Haitians.
The Haitian prime minister, Evans Paul, has made no comment.
Edwin Paraison, former Haitian consul to the Dominican Republic, told VICE News, "There is no justification for a hanging in a public place no matter what the motive of the murder. It leads us to believe we are dealing with a hate crime in a particular context where hate speech against the Haitian community by certain commentators is scarcely concealed."
Paraison said that the day before Claude's body was discovered, a public demonstration had taken place in which war was declared on illegal immigration and that well known journalists had received death threats from ultra-nationalists for sympathizing with Haitian immigrants.
The protest followed a Febuary 1 deadline for Haitians born in the Dominican Republic to report to the authorities with proof that their ancestors came to the country legally, or face the possibility of deportation. The deadline was imposed after a 2013 ruling which effectively stripped Haitians born in the country after 1929 of their citizenship.
"It is a situation that seems to escape the control of the leaders of both countries, who have neglected to deal with the long-standing migration issue during the bilateral high-level talks held last year," Paraison said. "Everything seems to show that the anti-Haitian warhorse will be used again by certain political leaders in the election campaign."
According to María Isabel Soldevila, editor-in-chief of the country's biggest selling newspaper Listin Diairo, Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, has become a particularly hostile environment for Haitians.
She said that last year racist groups in the city had burned a book by Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa,"as a way to protest his views on the constitutional court's ruling and his son Gonzalo Vargas Llosa's work for the United Nations refugee division here. These groups have marched against the presence of Haitians in Santiago before and the hanging is not something to take lightly."
Vargas Llosa, the novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 and whose novel The Feast of the Goat was based on the 30-year dictatorship of Dominican president Rafael Trujillo during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Haitians were executed in a state-sponsored massacre in 1937, has been vocal about the 2013 court ruling.
According to Myrtha Desulme, an activist on the board of the Haitian Diaspora Foundation, the law is so strict that "even a Dominican born to Dominican parents could be denationalized if they could trace an undocumented Haitian ancestor going back 80 years. Someone who has resided in the country for 80 years could be deemed to be 'in transit' for the purposes of this law. Of course, the law doesn't specify Haitians, it refers to all foreigners. But everyone knows that Haitians are the main targets."
The court ruling came after a young girl was refused citizenship because her undocumented Haitian parents were considered "in transit." An appeal case was brought against the Dominican government who responded by passing the controversial measure.
There are 450,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent and up to 200,000 of them could be at risk of deportation.
After the ruling was publicly criticized by the Jamaican economist and long-standing champion of Haitian rights, the late Norman Girvan, heads of state from the Caribbean bloc Caricom iwrote strongly-worded letters to the Dominican president, Danilo Medina, expressing their humanitarian concerns.
The measure, which initially provided for automatic deportation, was subsequently amended to allow whose parents were undocumented to "normalize" their status by applying for two-year permits to stay in the country of their birth until they are allowed to formally re-apply for citizenship.
Haitian journalist Louis-Joseph Olivier of the newspaper Le Nouvelliste, told VICE News, "Everything began on 23 September 2013. Racist, anti-Haitian feeling intensified in the Dominican Republic since the decision of the Constitutional Court. It is in this context that cases of violence against the Haitian community are becoming more and more frequent on the other side of the island."
Despite the criticism from the outside world, many Dominicans are supportive of their government's position.
Prominent artist Marcos Lora Read told VICE News: "The government has invited (the international community) to come and see for themselves. Our country doesn't have the capacity to give nationality to everyone that crosses the border to give birth. The hospitals are already collapsing and tensions will increase. Every country has laws that go beyond human solidarity and compassion."
Referring to the Feb 1 deadline, he said that 43,000 Haitians had just been given residency papers. "Still there is an estimate of one million illegal here and unfortunately the country will not be able to legalize all of them, we don't have enough infrastructure. We hope that the rest of the Caribbean countries and the world can take some to lessen the pressure in Haiti a little bit and slow down the friction between the two countries."