Wearing a black jacket and a white face mask, Constant was arrested by police on the tarmac of Port-au-Prince’s international airport after nearly 26 years of fleeing the country to the United States.
“Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant has been handed over to the justice system for the acts of which he is accused,” the Justice Ministry of Haiti said in a statement.
Constant founded a paramilitary group in Haiti in the early 1990s that he says was aimed at upholding peace after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but that rights activists say murdered and tortured thousands of the leftist leader’s supporters.
Constant, who made no comment to reporters upon his arrival, has said in the past he was being used as a scapegoat for rights abuses committed under military rule.
He fled Haiti in 1994 when Aristide was restored to power, becoming a real estate agent in New York’s borough of Queens. He was convicted in 2008 of mortgage fraud and larceny and served more than a decade in a U.S. prison.
A U.S. court in 2007 also found him “liable for torture, attempted extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity” in Haiti and ordered him to pay $19 million to three women who say they were raped and had their breasts slashed by his men.
Constant was released from prison into U.S. immigration custody in April. Human rights campaigners on Tuesday warned that the case was a test of the floundering justice system in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country.
“This is an important test for the Haitian justice system,” said William G. O’Neill, an international human rights lawyer who helped document Constant’s brutality and that of the paramilitary group he founded, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, in the 1990s.
“Constant has been already convicted in absentia for what must be considered a crime against humanity, the massacre in Raboteau. He and the organization he controlled have been linked with similar crimes,” O’Neill said.
“So I hope that if there is a new trial, the Haitian people will have their day in court and secure justice and establish the truth of what happened in that terrible time,” he added.