A former top government prosecutor who was once forced to flee Haiti for Miami in fear for his life is dead.
Claudy Gassant was found dead Saturday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where he recently had been living. The discovery came on the same day Gassant was expected to be in South Florida for a conference on Haiti’s widening insecurity. His death was described as suspicious.
Smith Augustin, Haiti’s ambassador to the neighboring country, said Gassant’s death was confirmed by the National Department of Investigations (DNI).
“Police are in the house investigating; they are trying to see if it was suicide or a homicide,” Augustin told the Miami Herald.
Former Haiti Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who spoke with Gassant often, said he will miss the jurist.
“We’ve lost in a dramatic way, one of our most savvy experts on penal procedures. He was secretary of state for justice in my government, but I will miss the friendship and the intelligent conversations I regularly had with him on how we could be useful to Haiti besides involvement in politics.”
Frantz Exantus, who served as secretary of state for communication in Haiti, said he was devastated by the news of his friend.
“Integrity, courageous and competent. He has always proven himself in every position he has held,” Exantus wrote on his Facebook page, adding that “an independent investigation is required.”
A high-profile lawman, Gassant first rose to fame in Haiti as the investigative judge tasked with finding out who murdered agronomist-turned-journalist Jean Léopold Dominique and a security guard on April 3, 2000. Both men were gunned down in the courtyard of Dominique’s Radio Haiti-Inter station in Port-au-Prince.
Once a supporter of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Family party, Dominique had become an outspoken critic on the airwaves. Twenty-one years after his assassination, his murder remains unsolved.
In Haiti, an investigative judge functions similar to an American grand jury. After being assigned the case, Gassant often complained about threats on his life and walked around the ministry of justice accompanied by heavily armed security. In a 2001 interview, he told the Miami Herald that he feared for his life because powerful people in Aristide’s government might be implicated in the murders.
“The executive is against me, the legislative is against me, and the judiciary, too,” he said at the time. “I’m so afraid I don’t know of whom to be afraid.”
After spending several years in South Florida, Gassant would return to Haiti, where he served in the government of the late President René Préval and was tasked with rooting out corruption. But his clashes with the police and others often overshadowed the job and made some uneasy with his tactics.
One infamous episode ended with Gassant abruptly resigning his post as the country’s top prosecutor but not before Préval was forced to step in as referee. The resignation, which Gassant would confirm to the Herald, came just days after declaring in a press conference that the only way he would leave his post as Port-au-Prince district attorney is if he were fired.
The resignation was the final episode of a weeklong drama between Gassant and a Petionville police commissioner, Frantz Georges. It unfolded during a July weekend at a konpa music festival after Gassant and a security guard got into an argument when Gassant was refused re-entry into the party.
Upset, Gassant ordered a gun check at the concert and the jailing of the security firm owner on charges of having an illegal firearm.
In recent years, Gassant had served as the head of Haiti’s anti-corruption unit under President Jovenel Moïse, whose July 7 assassination remains under investigation. Gassant had left the government by the time of Moïse assassination.
Gassant was appointed by Moïse as director general of the Unit for the Fight Against Corruption on November 29, 2019 and fired 50 days after his Dec. 3, installation.
He learned of his firing on social media after it was announced that the president had appointed a new director, Rockefeller Vincent, who is today Haiti’s current justice minister. The anti-corruption unit also employed one of the suspects, Joseph Felix Badio, sought by Haitian police for questioning in the president’s murder.
On Saturday, Gassant had been scheduled to be in South Florida at Florida International University, where he was to join several other Haitians for the conference. The conference was organized by members of the Haitian diaspora.