Events have moved quickly for the Haitian refugees that had been held at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba. The 300 Haitians were freed after federal district judge Sterling Johnson issued a sweeping order on June 7, mandating their immediate release.
The refugees had qualified for political asylum in the US, but were denied entry under the controversial HIV exclusion rule. Written into law by Congress in April, the rule prohibits any non-citizen who tests positive for the HIV virus from entering the country.
In his ruling, Judge Johnson pointed out that Haitians are, the only group of political asylum-seekers that are tested for HIV-unlike Cuban refugees, who are considered "politically correct" because of US enmity towards the Fidel Castro regime.
Following Johnsons decision, all the refugees held at Guantanamo were allowed to enter the United States. Most went to areas where there are large Haitian communities, such as Miami and New York. The Clinton administration has decided not to challenge the order. But the Haitians got in just under the wire. Two weeks later on June 23, the US Supreme Court upheld the legality of the policy-initiated by the Bush administration and continued under Clinton-of intercepting fleeing Haitians at sea and sending them back without asylum hearings.
Anyone who reaches US soil has a right to an asylum hearing, but the high court ruled that interception at sea by US Coast Guard ships does not constitute reaching US territory. Therefore, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, the refugees are not technically "expelled or returned."
Harry Blackmum, the only dissenting justice, noted that the fleeing Haitians "demand only that the US, land of refugees and guardian of freedom, cease forcibly driving them back to detention, abuse and death."
Human rights activists consider the ruling a violation of international law, which prohibits the forced return of political refugees-including those picked up on the high seas.
Haiti is considered one of the ten worst human rights violators in the world. On October 30, 1991, the countrys first democratically elected president, populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced out in a military coup. Subsequent repressive bloodshed resulted in the deaths of thousands of Aristide supporters, among the poorest people in Haiti.
A recent agreement reached at the United Nations between Haitis military rulers and Aristide will result in Aristides return to power on October 30. But human rights violations continue. Aristide himself will have to give up most of the power he held as president before the coup. He will have to share power with a hostile senate-voted into office in a disputed election under the watchful eye of military rule during his exile.