Ex-Haiti dictator holes up in luxury hotel

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Former Haiti dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has holed up in Port-au-Prince's luxurious Hotel Karibe hotel, receiving a string of confidantes as speculation swirled about his unexpected return.

Appearing more frail than his 59 years would suggest, Duvalier arrived back late Sunday, kissing the tarmac as he stepped onto home soil for the first time since being driven from power by a popular uprising 25 years ago.

His return came against the backdrop of great uncertainty in Haiti following disputed presidential elections that have created a political vacuum and spawned deadly riots between rival factions.

Human rights groups called for Duvalier to face trial, but the justice system is in tatters after last year's devastating earthquake and most Haitians are too young to remember his rapacious 1971-1986 rule.

"Duvalier's return to Haiti should be for one purpose only: to face justice," said New York-based Human Rights Watch. "His time to be held accountable is long overdue."

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, speaking to reporters Monday, left the door open to possible legal action.

"Exile is forbidden by the Haitian constitution. All citizens can return to their country, but that also means that all citizens are subject to Haitian law," he said. "If there are judicial procedures where (Duvalier) is concerned, the judiciary will do what it must."

Journalists crowded outside the luxurious Hotel Karibe in the upmarket Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville as former regime figures, relatives and trusted confidantes trickled in to meet Duvalier. His spokesman Henri-Robert Sterlin insisted a media event would be held, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

A French diplomatic source in Port-au-Prince told AFP the former dictator had booked a return ticket to France dated January 20, in three days time.

The United States expressed its shock and suggested it was particularly unhelpful Duvalier had chosen to return when Haiti is still wrestling with the disputed results of the November 28 elections.

"We are surprised by the timing of Duvalier's visit to Haiti. It adds unpredictability at an uncertain time in Haiti's election process," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

President Rene Preval was to meet with the visiting head of the Organization of American States regional bloc, Jose Miguel Insulza, later Monday to plot a way through the electoral impasse.

International monitors want Jude Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of Preval, to step aside and allow opposition figure Michel Martelly to contest a run-off against the favorite, former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

It was not immediately clear how Duvalier's re-emergence would shake up the political landscape, but some were already alleging a Preval plot aimed at miring the process in further confusion.

Veronique Roy, Duvalier's long-time partner traveling with him, dismissed speculation he had been asked to return by Preval, telling AFP: "There has been absolutely no contact."

There were wild scenes at the airport on Sunday night as thousands rushed to greet a giant of Haiti's past, seemingly resurrected from political oblivion.

Experts on Haiti's violence-plagued history struggled to fathom what Duvalier's motive might be, but were not surprised by the warm welcome he had received so far.

"Something like half the population never experienced the viciousness of the dictatorship," Robert Fatton, a history professor from the University of Virginia who grew up under Duvalier, told AFP.

The harsh reality is that despite some progress towards democracy, the lot of many Haitians has not improved since Duvalier left.

The misery of the poor has been exacerbated by last year's quake and a recent cholera epidemic, making some nostalgic for the stability and security of the past.

"You can feel people are fed up with the existing system, the existing political class, with the international community," said Fatton. "There is a feeling things are so bad no one can resolve anything and the place is waiting to explode."

Haiti's older generation will remember the 28 combined years of Duvalier family rule as a time of unparalleled repression enforced by the notoriously sinister secret police, the Tonton Macoutes.

Propelled to power at just 19 on the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the chubby-cheeked young leader with a penchant for Laborghinis was not expected to last long.

But, allowing confidantes to enjoy lavish lifestyles, "Baby Doc" consolidated power, clamping down on dissent and rubber-stamping his own laws while pocketing government revenue.

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