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Haitian football's sexual abuse scandal: A tangled web

Jonathan Crane | Barbara Mohr
June 4, 2020

The head of Haitian football, Yves Jean-Bart, has wielded huge power for decades. Despite sexual abuse claims, an admission he has a child with a former player and a FIFA investigation, he denies any wrongdoing.

Yves Jean-Bart, Haiti's FA President
Image: Getty Images/A. Schneider

Female footballers and coaches are being silenced following allegations of sexual abuse inside Haiti's football federation (FHF), and against its longtime president, Yves "Dadou" Jean-Bart.

One Haitian coach, who has experienced the international setup first hand, gave testimony to DW about Jean-Bart. But when contacted later for further comment, the coach changed his story, saying the abuse had never happened to the players he was dealing with.

Pascale Solages, a leading women's rights activist in Haiti, says victims often choose to stay quiet out of shame, especially when the accused is in a position of authority.

"Jean-Bart is a man of power, so he can intimidate victims, he can intimidate families, he can intimidate institutions," she said. "If the person is very influential, is corrupt and has a lot of money, it becomes even harder for the woman to get justice."

DW has talked to multiple sources to independently verify allegations first brought to light by British newspaper The Guardian at the end of April.

One overseas club said it was offering support to a former player, adding: "We are very concerned about the situation. We consider these allegations to be deeply disturbing."

The Guardian detailed how Jean-Bart forced young female players at the country's national training center to have sex with him, adding that at least two of the girls had to have abortions. It also said victims and their families had received death threats for revealing the abuse. DW requested an interview with Jean-Bart but didn't receive a response.

Police in Haiti say they are pushing forward with an investigation. Jean-Bart has vehemently denied the allegations and decried them as a plot to oust him from the federation, which has given him its backing.

Meanwhile, FIFA, world football's governing body, has temporarily suspended Jean-Bart from his football duties for 90 days while its ethics committee looks into the case. It has also set up an ad hoc group to gather evidence on the ground.

As per the FHF's rules, the federation's longest-serving vice president, Joseph Varieno Saint-Fleur, has been selected to replace Jean-Bart on an acting basis.

A great deal of power

Jean-Bart has ruled over Haitian football for 20 years. Sources in Haiti paint the picture of a man who has built up a great deal of power both inside and outside the sport, with connections in politics and the media. A former journalist, he is currently also the CEO of a commercial radio station.

One of the ways Jean-Bart has been able to exert his influence is through the issuing of visas, which are often hard to obtain in Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries. This is used to reward loyalty among players and journalists. "It's really powerful when you can give people the opportunity to travel and leave the country," one source said.

Another source said it simply wasn't possible for anyone to challenge the president about his behavior for fear of reprisals, such as losing privileges. This meant the victims didn't know who they could trust and, as a result, were too scared to talk whenever they were approached about the allegations.

‘No evidence’ for allegations

To handle its communications strategy, the FHF has hired Evan Nierman, a crisis management specialist. Nierman, who has given TED Talks about his work, told DW the allegations were "without truth and without merit."

"The federation welcomes an in-depth investigation, because what it's going to reveal is that there has been no such behavior," he said. "There's no evidence for any of these allegations. It's not based in reality."

After being confronted with the claims, the FHF referred itself to the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), an independent rights group in Haiti.

During the course of this investigation, Jean-Bart admitted to having a daughter with a former player. The RNDDH, which is continuing to investigate, described what it had found as "unacceptable" and noted that the president was "repeatedly splashed by sexual scandals involving young players."

Despite initially pointing to the RNDDH's investigation as a sign of its transparency, the federation has rejected the findings.

"The report did not find any actual victims or witnesses," the FHF said in a statement, claiming that other people interviewed by the RNDDH were either "longtime critics" of Jean-Bart and the federation or had "an axe to grind."

Abuse victims at risk

In a country with a weak justice system and where men dominate daily life, women rarely report their abuse. Yolette Jeanty from the women's advocacy group Kay Fanm, which recently organized a street protest against Jean-Bart, says young female players are vulnerable to exploitation.

"In this case, the alleged victims are minors who dream of being called up to play for the national team," she said. "There is a strong possibility the claims against Jean-Bart are true, but the athletes are scared of reporting him as they don't want to get into a conflict with a person who has the power to end their careers."

The police investigation is being led by the force's specialist child protection unit, the Protection of Minors Brigade. Jean-Bart has been questioned by a district attorney but not yet charged with a crime.

"What I can tell you for now is that the investigation is proceeding well," said Michel-Ange Louis Jeune, a spokesman for the Haitian police. "To accuse a person of any wrongdoing, you need proof. This is a universal principal." Louis Jeune added there was a possibility Jean-Bart would be charged "once the evidence has clearly been established."

The FHF has criticized what it calls "inaccurate, biased and deeply flawed reporting," hitting out at the use of anonymous sources. Nierman questioned why the victims and their families needed to protect their identities.

"Imagine you were the parent of a child who was raped and forced to have an abortion," he said. "Wouldn't you go to the police? Wouldn't you make a complaint?"

FIFA response 'uneven'

The case bears many similarities to the sexual abuse scandal that shook the Afghanistan women's national team in 2018, and which led to the eventual removal of the federation's president and other high-ranking officials.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino
FIFA President Gianni InfantinoImage: AFP/F. Fife

On that occasion, FIFA came under fire for being too slow to act and for failing to adequately shield the victims from their abusers. For many such victims, FIFA is the last hope for some form of accountability.

A FIFA source, who couldn't talk publicly given the sensitivity of the issue, said the governing body was working with global agencies to ensure that care and support was in place for victims to come forward in confidence.

FIFA admitted to first becoming aware of the alleged abuse in March after a media inquiry. Asked why it had waited for more than two months to suspend Jean-Bart on May 25, a spokesman told DW the initial information was "vague" and "insufficient to start an investigation," adding that due process had to be followed.

Minky Worden, a director at Human Rights Watch, gave FIFA credit for reacting more quickly than it did in the Afghan case but said its response had been "very uneven" so far.

"However the complaints came to the attention of FIFA, the response should have been an immediate investigation and to seek ways to protect the witnesses and the player whistleblowers," Worden said.

"FIFA is improving but very much dropped the ball when the complaints first came in, because someone [within FIFA] alerted the Haitian football federation that they had a complaint. It shouldn't have been an opportunity for the president to clean up his act."

Duty of care

In the wake of what happened in Afghanistan, FIFA appointed a dedicated child protection officer and launched a safeguarding program called "Guardians," which sets out five steps for federations to keep children in football safe.

But concerns remain over the effectiveness of FIFA's measures. Critics say its whistleblowing system can be intimidating for those who don't speak any of FIFA's four official languages, while the "Guardians" program isn't yet enforced by statute. For example, the FHF said it was "reviewing the guidance and working to implement the recommendations," claiming it had only been sent the program in January.

For Worden, it all comes down to a duty of care.

"If something's voluntary, then it's your choice to implement it, and it should never be the choice to protect children," she said. "If you have a 'You can do it if you feel like it' approach, federations will drive a truck through it."

DW's Sophie Serbini contributed to this report.

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