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January 15, 2014

Haiti human rights lawyers to share award

SALEM — Two lawyers who have spent the past two decades pursuing human rights causes in Haiti will receive this year’s Salem Award.

Brian Concannon is the founder of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, while Mario Joseph serves as managing attorney at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, its sister organization based out of Port-au-Prince.

The two have worked on an array of issues, from prisoners’ rights to housing advocacy to the prosecution of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier for financial and political crimes.

“Collectively, what we try to do is make the justice system work for everybody, especially the poorest,” Concannon said in an interview this week. “We work very closely together in all our cases.”

One thing the two are currently working on is the Rape Accountability Prevention Project, which aims to keep pressure on Haiti’s police and court systems to follow through on rape cases.

Concannon said that while rape was hardly ever prosecuted effectively before the 2010 earthquake, things only got worse afterward. A woman who tried to report a rape, he said, had the odds stacked against her from the very first step — approaching a police officer, he said.

“The officer would say, ‘I don’t have a pen, I don’t have a form, I don’t know how to use the form,’” Concannon said. “They are apathetic because — with good reason — they think nothing’s going to happen.”

In order to get officers to take a rape report seriously, it was sometimes necessary to send a lawyer to the station with the victim to explain that police were obligated to act, Concannon said. That lawyer might have even provided the officer a pen or explained how to fill out the form.

Pressure had to be kept on the system all the way up to the prosecutor, who would likely need to be “pushed to do a good job,” Concannon said.

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