* Aristide has been exiled in South Africa since 2004
* His return unrelated to March 20 election, lawyer says
* Decision is up to Haitian government, not U.S., he says (Adds response from Aristide’s lawyer)
WASHINGTON, March 14 (Reuters) - The United States on Monday urged Haiti’s exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to delay his return until after Haiti’s March 20 run-off presidential election.
Responding to reports of Aristide’s imminent return to Haiti, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was up to Port-au-Prince to decide whether to permit the return of its former leader who has lived in exile in South Africa since his 2004 ouster.
“Former President Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years,” said Toner. “To return this week could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.”
“We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded, to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere,” he said, adding that a return before the election could “potentially be destabilizing to the political process.”
Toner said the United States was also calling on the South African government to urge Aristide to delay his return until after the election.
A spokeswoman for Aristide said on Friday that the former president would return to Haiti “in a few days.”
Aristide’s return is unrelated to the election, but “he is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa,” his attorney, Ira Kurzban, said in Miami.
“The Department of State has previously said that this is a decision for the Haitian government. They should leave that decision to the democratically elected government instead of seeking to dictate the terms under which a Haitian citizen may return to his country,” Kurzban said.
Aristide has long accused the United States of helping engineer his ouster, and Kurzban said the U.S. government has played an active role in ensuring he remained in South Africa. He said Aristide was going back to Haiti to carry on his educational work.
Election officials have barred Aristide’s party from running a candidate in the election, which was tainted by allegations of widespread fraud during November’s first round of voting. (Reporting by Deborah Charles in Washington and Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)