Former paramilitary leader pleads not guilty in killings

A former paramilitary leader prosecuted in Haiti for murder and torture insisted on Monday that he has become a scapegoat for atrocities in the Caribbean nation, claiming he would be killed if he is forced to return.

"If I ever touch Haiti, I will be executed at the airport," Emmanuel "Toto" Constant said in a rambling, emotional plea to a judge overseeing his mortgage fraud case in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

The dire warning was a switch from last week, when lawyers for the state attorney general's office and the federal Department of Homeland Security urged Justice Abraham Gerges to sentence Constant in the fraud case to time served, about 10 months of a proposed one- to three-year sentence, to speed his deportation to Haiti to face charges there. At that time, Constant told the court he had "no fear" about going back.

On Tuesday, Constant, 50, repeated claims he was on the CIA's payroll while head of a Haitian paramilitary group in the 1990s. He also said he was "promoting reconciliation" at the time but since has become a target of political persecution.

"There is no proof whatsoever, your honor, anywhere in the world that can link me to any type of massacre, execution, kidnapping, rape or anything of that sort," he said.

The judge postponed the sentencing after the Center for Constitutional Rights claimed that Haiti's justice system was too unstable to ensure Constant faces justice. The civil rights group also argued the proposed sentence in the fraud case was too lenient, given Constant's background.

The judge has suggested he might kill the plea deal, forcing Constant to withdraw a guilty plea and go to trial on charges he defrauded lenders out of more than $1.7 million (1.26 million EUR). If convicted, Constant would face five to 15 years in prison.

Constant's attorney, Marie Pereira, argued that the deal was reached "with full knowledge of these frivolous allegations" and should be honored.

The judge said he would rule on Tuesday.

Constant, the son of a military officer, emerged as the feared leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidency was toppled in 1991.

Human rights groups allege that between 1991 and 1994, FRAPH terrorized and slaughtered slum-dwellers loyal to Aristide. When Aristide returned to power in 1994, Constant fled to the United States.

Despite a 1995 deportation order, Constant was allowed to remain because of instability in Haiti. He kept a low profile, living with relatives in Queens until being jailed last year in the mortgage fraud case.

Outside court, a handful of people demonstrated for a stiff sentence for Constant. Among them was Lynne Stewart, a former activist lawyer convicted of helping an imprisoned terrorist sheik communicate with his followers; she remains free while appealing her 28-month sentence.

"I'm here because, unlike me, he's a real terrorist," she said.