PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier ended his silence, telling Haitians he returned after 25 years in exile because he wanted to participate in the reconstruction of the earthquake-shattered country.
The 59-year-old ex-strongman, speaking in a faint voice in his first public comments since arriving in Haiti on Sunday, told Haitians and reporters that he was ready to face "persecution" and had timed his return to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
"When I made the decision to come back to Haiti to commemorate this sad anniversary with you, in our country, I was ready for any kind of persecution," Duvalier said Friday. "But I believe that the desire to participate by your side in this collaboration for the national reconstruction far outweighs any harassment I could face."
Since his stunning return to Haiti, the man known as "Baby Doc" had largely remained holed up in a luxury hotel and in a private residence, his isolation feeding speculation as to exactly why he had come home.
He did not field any questions during Friday's address, leaving that to three American consultants — including former U.S. congressman and presidential candidate Bob Barr — and one of his Haitian lawyers.
The former leader, who ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986 through terror and the regime he inherited from his father, returned to the shattered nation. He soon found himself facing an investigation by a Haitian court for corruption, embezzlement, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, crimes against humanity and other allegations.
His motives for returning have been a source of debate and confusion. Some believe he had a desire to unlock Swiss bank accounts that contain the last remnants of his squandered fortune. Others speculate that he is gravely ill, or that he is a pawn in someone else's game — Haiti's current president, the United States or France — to influence Haiti's current electoral crisis.
Duvalier did not address any of those topics, other than to say it was his choice to return. He appeared to be in imperfect health, slurring his speech at times in a near-whisper, apparently unable to move his neck and walking with a shuffle.
Much of the speech was a throwback to earlier times. He spoke in French, the colonial language used by presidents until after his ouster, dropping in only occasional words of Haitian Creole.
He referred to his arrival Sunday at "Francois Duvalier International Airport" — which carried his father's name until his fall from power. It is now Touissant Loverture International Airport, named for the leader of Haiti's late 18th Century revolution.
About Haiti's past, Duvalier expressed sympathy primarily for his partisans "killed, burned, grilled, tortured by 'Pe Lebrun'" — the Haitian slang term for placing a tire around someone's neck and setting it on fire — or who lost their property in revenge against his regime following his ouster.
"And all under the glare of cameras around the world," he added.
As for those tortured, imprisoned, killed and exiled under his rule he offered "my profound sadness toward my countrymen who consider themselves, rightly, to have been victims of my government."
He ended with a declaration "imitating Martin Luther King" in which he envisioned a day when "all Haiti's children, men and women, old and young, rich and poor, from the interior and from the Diaspora, can march hand in hand without exclusion to participate together in Haiti's rebirth."
As he shuffled off, the Americans — Barr, longtime Duvalier family adviser and attorney Ed Marger and Snellville, Georgia, attorney Mike Puglise — arrived with Haitian lawyer Reynold Georges to take questions while a band waving Duvalier's red-and-black party flag played outside.
Barr called Duvalier's speech "profoundly moving."
Marger, who handled most of the queries, said they were there to help Duvalier collect undelivered reconstruction funds promised by the United States and other countries at the March 31, 2010, U.N. donors' conference. He said Duvalier could manage them more effectively than former U.S. President Bill Clinton and distribute them more justly than current Haitian President Rene Preval.
The men said they would be paid if Duvalier is able to collect those funds.
On the ex-dictator's health, Marger said he appeared to be suffering from a "stiff neck."
As for the accusations about the abuses under his regime, Marger said: "Are there atrocities in Haiti? You bet your life. Is (Duvalier) responsible for them? I don't know."
Amnesty International reiterated Friday that Duvalier should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of Haitian law.
"There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. Jean-Claude Duvalier therefore must be brought to justice for these acts," said researcher Gerardo Ducos. "He must remain in the country as long as the investigation is taking place."
But many Haitians, too young to remember his time in power, reacted more favorably to the ex-dictator's speech.
"He came to do good things for us. This country doesn't function anymore," said Kevins Felicie, a motorcycle driver born four months after Duvalier boarded a U.S. plane for exile. "It wasn't me that was hurt by him, or even my dad — but my grandfather. He didn't do anything to me."
Associated Press writer Jacob Kushner contributed to this report