Violence reported at Funeral for Father Gérard Jean-Juste

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Both the Haitian press and Associated Press are reporting that violence has marred the funeral in Port-au-Prince for Father Gérard Jean-Juste, the activist priest whose name is associated with the fight for full rights for Haitian immigrants in Miami. Father Jean-Juste, who died on May 27th in Miami from complications from a stroke, was flown to Port-au-Prince for a funeral mass at the Cathedral before burial next to his mother in his home town of Cavaillon.

The ceremony today in Port-au-Prince, officiated by Haiti’s archbishop. Monsignor Miot, was attended by thousands of supporters, as was the case in Miami earlier this month when a memorial mass was celebrated at the Notre Dame d’Haiti church in Little Haiti.  Mourners sang pro-Aristide songs and slogans throughout the ceremony, as Jean-Juste was an ardent supporter of Aristide’s party. After the ceremony, the coffin, draped in the Haitian flag, emerged from the Cathedral with great difficulty, as thousands had gathered outside the church to demand justice for the priest, who, although known to have been battling leukemia (his stroke is said to have been a result of his treatment), was said by some to have been a victim of a criminal act.

The shooting happened as about 2,000 people were carrying Jean-Juste’s flag-draped coffin to the presidential palace to protest President René Préval’s policies and his failure to bring Aristide back from South African exile. Witnesses said some marchers had thrown rocks at Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers shortly before gunshots rang out, causing a panic and leaving one marcher dead in a pool of blood.

The rock-throwing was apparently linked to the presence of agents of the Minustah, claiming to be there in pursuit of a man called Ferdinand—reportedly an escaped prisoner. They proceeded to arrest said Ferdinand, who gave up without resistance, and was taken away by United Nations personnel. A few minutes afterwards, however, the body of a man shot to death was discovered by the side of the Cathedral. The crowd, already incensed by the presence of foreign troops on Haitian soil, turned in anger against the Brazilian troops that form the core of the UN troops assigned to Haiti, accusing them of killing the unidentified man. Additional shots were fired before UN troops withdrew.

Most of Jean-Juste’s mourners had continued on to the palace gates, unaware of the death at first. The casket had been alreadyloaded into a hearse to be carried to his birthplace in rural Cavaillon. But as word of the shooting raced through the crowd, some mourners began smashing the windows of cars and buildings. Four men then carried the dead protesters’s body to the palace, laying it onto the same spot where Jean-Juste’s casket had been minutes before, and screaming for Préval to resign. “He was our brother, and they killed him,” said a sobbing man who said he saw the shooting.

Haitian riot police moved in with shields and batons to make way for a police ambulance to remove the body. U.N. peacekeepers stood by across the plaza.

The shooting follows four weeks of protests led by medical students against the elimination of some classes from school curriculum, in favor of an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage and against the 9,000-member U.N. force that has been in Haiti since Aristide’s departure in 2004.

On Wednesday, student protesters attacked and burned a U.N. police vehicle.

It is feared that the angry protests could inflame government opponents with only days to go before elections in the troubled nation. Student-led demonstrations have preceded several recent upheavals, including the 2004 rebellion that ousted Aristide and the 1986 overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

UN Spokesperson in Haiti, Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, said the shooting was under investigation and that an autopsy would be quickly carried out. There has been no evidence produced that would definitively prove who shot the man. None of the protesters were seen holding guns and the shooting took place on a busy thoroughfare intersected by multiple cross-streets and alleys.

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