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Jean-Claude Duvalier appeared frail as he waved to crowds Wednesday on his way to a courthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to be charged with corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds. ((Ramon Munoz/Reuters) )

A lawyer for Jean-Claude Duvalier says the statute of limitations has expired for the former Haitian dictator to be tried on charges relating to his 16-year presidency and will fight to have them dismissed.

Duvalier, also known as Baby Doc, has been charged with corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds amid accusations he pilfered up to $300 million from federal coffers.

The 59-year-old led the Caribbean nation from 1971 until 1986, when he fled during a popular rebellion.

Lawyer Gervais Charles said Wednesday it is well established that the statute of limitations in Haiti is 10 years — the amount of time within which criminal charges must be laid for certain crimes.

"There is no excuse for the [Haitian] government for having done nothing during the 25 years [since Duvalier left office]," Charles told CBC News.

Charles said he understands the "frustration of many people who may [have] grudges against the government of Duvalier."

"But the statute of limitations must be applied," he said.

"The best test is to respect the defendant's right of somebody you don't particularly like."

Future plans uncertain

Duvalier has not been arrested. A judge is investigating the charges, laid Tuesday, to decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial, a process that can take up to three months.

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A supporter holds photos of Baby Doc, left, and his late father, François Duvalier, outside the courthouse where Duvalier was charged. ((Dieu Nalio Cherry/Associated Press))

In the meantime, Duvalier is unable to leave Haiti because officials have confiscated his passport, Charles said.

Another defence lawyer, Reynold Georges, told reporters that Haiti's government has not ordered Duvalier to return to France following his surprise arrival in the country.

"He is free to do whatever he wants, go wherever he wants," Georges said. "It is his right to live in his country ... He is going to stay. It is his country."

Duvalier returned to Port-au-Prince late Sunday afternoon after 25 years in exile.

On Tuesday, he was escorted from his room at the luxury Karibe Hotel by armed police and taken to a courthouse, where he was charged.

Rumours abound about reason for return

There has been much speculation about why Duvalier has returned after so many years abroad.

He and his longtime companion, Véronique Roy, have denied the return is politically motivated. He has said he has come back to monitor reconstruction efforts after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, refused to speculate about Duvalier's plans to stay. 

"Let justice do its job, run its course," Blanchet said in an email. "He is a citizen, and no one is above the law."

Duvalier "remains available to the prosecutor" while he is in Haiti, she said.

Many journalists believe the stunning return is a big charade meant to divert attention from a lack of progress in determining the country's next president, CBC reporter Connie Watson said.

'We have more important problems right now that affect the future of the country.' — Gervais Charles, lawyer

There are also rumours that the frail-looking former leader is gravely ill and has returned to Haiti for a last look at his homeland, Watson reported.

Haiti is still struggling to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election. It also faces a cholera epidemic and continues to struggle to repair damage caused by the 2010 earthquake.

Charles called the return "ill-timed."

"We have more important problems right now that affect the future of the country," Charles said.

With files from The Associated Press