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Catholic priest freed from Haitian jail arrives in Miami for cancer treatment
A politically influential Roman Catholic priest arrived in Miami on Sunday after Haiti's government granted him a temporary release from jail to be treated for leukemia and pneumonia.
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste will be treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said Ira Kurzban, an attorney who has worked with the cleric for years.
“I feel happy and grateful but I cannot forget the other political prisoners left behind,” Jean-Juste told The Miami Herald. “It's a very tough situation for them. I hope my release is the opening of the freedom door.”
Jean-Juste has been in prison on suspicion of involvement in the killing of prominent Haitian journalist and poet Jacques Roche. The 59-year-old priest has always denied the allegations.
Kurzban said Haiti buckled under public pressure to allow Jean-Juste to seek treatment in the United States.
“They certainly did not do this willingly and on their own,” Kurzban said.
Amnesty International has labeled Jean-Juste, who supports ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, “a prisoner of conscience.” He has drawn comparisons to Aristide for his impassioned sermons and advocacy for the poor and has emerged as a prominent figure in the ousted leader's Lavalas Family party.
The Haitian government granted Jean-Juste a provisional release from jail for humanitarian reasons, said Michel Brunache, chief of staff of interim President Boniface Alexandre.
“His leukemia cannot be treated in Haiti,” Brunache told the Associated Press. “After his treatment, he has to return to face justice.”
A judge cleared Jean-Juste of homicide, but he is charged with weapons possession and criminal conspiracy – charges that the priest denies.
His arrival in Miami pleased Haitian-American activists. A small group of people had gathered at a community center in the city's Little Haiti neighborhood Sunday afternoon.
“It is very good news because we did get the report last week that he was very critical,” said Jean-Robert LaFortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. “There has been a community outcry here in Miami to have the prime minister of Haiti free him so he could get adequate care.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said “We welcome the interim Haitian government's humanitarian decision to release Gerard Jean-Juste for the purpose of receiving medical treatment in the United States.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a champion of Jean-Juste's, said he was delighted when he received a call from Haiti's interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue telling him of the release.
The priest's supporters tried to register him as a presidential candidate last fall for the upcoming Feb. 7 elections, but authorities barred his candidacy because he was in prison.