MIAMI – The political climate was tense in Haiti’s capital Wednesday as scores of demonstrators and opposition lawmakers protested the arrest of a prominent attorney leading a corruption case against the first family.
Protesters showed up at the downtown Port-au-Prince courthouse where Andre Michel, a lawyer and government critic, was scheduled for an appearance after his arrest Tuesday night. Michel was accused of obstructing justice after refusing to allow police and the district attorney to search his car. His arrest, well after a 6 p.m. constitutionally mandated cutoff for arrests not related to immediate criminal events, triggered protests and accusations that Haiti had re-entered a dictatorial era.
“Once again the executive has continued with its flagrant violation of the Haitian Constitution,” Sen. Francky Exius said.
On July 13, Haitian Judge Jean Serge Joseph passed away under suspicious circumstances—sparking controversy within Haiti that his death was related to his involvement in a high profile corruption investigation against President Michel Martelly’s wife Sophia and their son Olivier.
The charges of corruption against Martelly’s family are related to the disappearance of large sums of money from several nationwide sports and social programs which are personally run by Sophia and Olivier, instead of the respective government ministries that should provide oversight. A group of lawyers, including Newton Louis Saint-Juste and André Michel, initially brought forward the high-profile case in August 2012. On July 2, the case took an important turn when Judge Joseph ordered the Haitian Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, and several senior officials to appear in court as witnesses.
Three lawyers in Haiti are reporting an increase of threats and intimidation against them in recent months. They believe they may be targeted for their activism and criticisms against the Haitian government.
On 28 September, the Chief Prosecutor of Port-au-Prince, Jean Renel Sénatus, was interviewed at local radio station, where he discussed his dismissal by the Ministry of Justice because he refused to implement a ministerial order to arrest 36 political opponents. It is not clear on which grounds these arrests had been ordered. The Ministry of Justice denied having given such orders.
Among the 36 political opponents were the names of lawyers Mario Joseph, Newton St-Juste and André Michel. Mario Joseph is a prominent human rights lawyer who is involved in sensitive judicial cases such as proceedings against former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, complaints against the UN for their alleged involvement in spreading the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and cases of forced evictions of people made homeless after the earthquake. As head of the International Lawyers Office (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux), he addressed the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights last July, requesting to visit Haiti to investigate human rights violations. Newton St-Juste and André Michel, also lawyers, recently filed criminal grievances against the wife and the son of the President of the Republic of Haiti for corruption and embezzlement of public funds.