Image: Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier waves from a balcony at the rented guest house he's staying at in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday
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updated 1/21/2011 7:15:48 PM ET 2011-01-22T00:15:48

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier started out his French exile living large on the Riviera: He drove a Ferrari, went on couture shopping sprees and lived in a gated villa protected by guards with assault rifles.

Then came an expensive divorce, a succession of modest apartments and a low-profile existence. It's been 25 years since Haiti's former "dictator for life" fled to France in 1986, and the French largely forgot he was here.

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Duvalier's mysterious reappearance this weekend in Haiti, where he is blamed for sowing terror and looting the treasury, was a new nightmare for a country dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake, a cholera outbreak and a disputed presidential election.

French officials insist they had no idea he was leaving and say they were as surprised as anyone. After all, why would he leave? By going home, 59-year-old Duvalier now risks trial for crimes from corruption to torture.

Theories about his departure abound. Some say returning to Haiti might help him unlock Swiss bank accounts. Others speculate he's gravely ill and wants to spend his last days in his homeland. Nobody knows for sure.

In France, efforts to prosecute Duvalier failed years ago. The media has rarely mentioned him for years. His most outspoken critic in France, Haitian-born photographer and artist Gerald Bloncourt, said he was warned by intelligence officers to stop hassling Duvalier.

Agents "came several times to see me and made it very clear that I should cool it," said Bloncourt, who in 1998 organized a committee to try to bring Duvalier to trial for crimes against humanity. A prosecutor's office threw out the request.

Duvalier was just 19 when he assumed power in 1971 after the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Father and son ruled over a nightmarish period of Haitian history, when a secret police force tortured and killed opponents.

Duvalier was deposed, put on an American plane and brought to France on Feb. 7, 1986. There he remained until Sunday, when he flew out of France on a Haitian diplomatic passport, according to French officials.

France has suffered a reputation as a haven for despots and unsavory international characters and their money, from Duvalier to Central African Republic's ruthless dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

There are signs France wants to shed that image: When Tunisia's longtime autocratic leader fled his country a week ago, French government spokesman Francois Baroin said there was "no question" of taking him in.

But Duvalier had been living quietly for so long that observers said it was unlikely the government suddenly forced him out.

Henri de Raincourt, France's minister for cooperation, told The AP: "We were not informed of his plan until the last moment." He described Duvalier's sudden departure as "curious."

Another French diplomat said France was aware of Duvalier's general location and activities and periodically had contact with him over the years but said the departure was a surprise. Police declined to comment.

Lawyer Yann Colin, who represented Haiti in a case against Duvalier in the 1980s and 1990s, said the claim of surprise was plausible.

"He had been utterly forgotten," said Colin, who filed liens two decades ago on the Duvalier family's French real estate, including an 18th century chateau.

Colin said he amassed "piles of documents" on the luxury goods Duvalier and his ex-wife, Michele, bought from shops including Givenchy and Hermes. During one police raid, she tried to hide a notebook where she kept tabs on the outrageous spending, he said.

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On the Riviera, the two lived for a time in a villa rented from a Saudi magnate and guarded by German shepherds and men with assault rifles. He drove a Ferrari and dined at the Moulin de Mougins, a pricey restaurant that draws Hollywood stars during the Cannes Film Festival.

But the couple's 1990s divorce was expensive, and Duvalier has reportedly lived cheaply since then, moving often between modest apartments.

"They embezzled a lot, millions of dollars, we had proof of that, but I'm not sure that Jean-Claude Duvalier was able to enjoy it much himself," Colin said. Eventually, France's courts said they did not have the authority to judge the Haitian government's case attempting to recover $120 million allegedly taken by Duvalier when he fled to France.

It is unclear how much money Duvalier has beyond $7.3 million frozen in Swiss bank accounts. On Feb. 1, a new law will allow Switzerland to give the money to Haiti for humanitarian work.

That deadline seems a plausible explanation for Duvalier's return home, said Peter N. Bouckaert, emergency director for Human Rights Watch in Geneva. Under Swiss law, if Duvalier returned to Haiti without facing prosecution, he might have been eligible to claim the money.

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"I'm pretty certain that Duvalier returned for a brief visit in a desperate attempt to get back his blocked assets, hoping that he wouldn't be detained and prosecuted and thus have a stronger case ... to get his money back," Bouckaert said.

If so, it was a risky gamble. Now, Haitian officials have moved toward charging Duvalier for corruption. More lawsuits were filed on arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, forced exile and destruction of private property.

Duvalier, who remains free, stayed in his homeland instead of getting on his scheduled flight out Thursday — for reasons just as mysterious as with his sudden return home.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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