Suspects in murder of Haiti president sent to prison amid concerns of rights violations

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Haiti has started transferring more than three dozen suspects implicated in the murder of its president, Jovenel Moïse, into the country’s overcrowded prison system amid questions about whether authorities here are violating their own due process and concerns about detention conditions.

“There hasn’t been any legal process yet; just disorder,” said Stanley Gaston, a defense attorney who represents four of the accused. “Everything is being done outside of the law.”

The Miami Herald and McClatchy’s Washington Bureau confirmed Monday that at least three of the 44 individuals placed under arrest by Haiti National Police were moved Sunday from police holding cells to the crowded National Penitentiary near downtown Port-au-Prince.

With the average prisoner in Haiti getting less than a square meter of space inside a cell, and the National Penitentiary already exceeding its 776-inmate capacity, relatives of some of the accused and lawyers representing them told the Herald that they were concerned about safety and the sordid conditions.

One of those transferred, Gilbert Dragon, is a former police commissioner who was part of the 2004 rebel-led coup that toppled then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The other was his boss, Reynaldo Corvington.

Lawyers for both men say they are innocent and were not involved in the armed attack that left Moïse dead and his wife, Martine, wounded. They expressed concerns not just about the transfers but the reality in Haiti that the majority of those imprisoned spend more than a decade awaiting trial.

The order to transfer the suspects came after Haitians and foreigners raised concerns about the suspects’ due process.

On Friday, the Colombian government called on Haiti to respect the legal rights of its 18 Colombian nationals who have been detained for their alleged involvement, and to ensure they receive medical attention. U.S. officials have also expressed concern to their Haitian counterparts about the conditions that suspects detained in connection with the assassination are being subjected to, according to U.S. sources familiar with the matter. Three of the detained are Haitian Americans.

Lawyers for some of the Haitian nationals have publicly criticized the procedural delays, and accused the judicial police of doing everything they can to botch the investigation with the blatant flouting of criminal procedures.

In a statement, Haiti’s Office of Citizen Protection noted that during the past two decades, “no spectacular criminal assassination trials have taken place in the country.”

“The alleged assassins identified are never prosecuted. Some, arrested by the police, were released by judges without any form of trial on suspicion of corruption,” the head of the office, Renan Hédouville said.

The assassination of Moïse must not go unpunished, said Hédouville, who called on the public prosecutor office “not to be intimidated by the pressures or unfair maneuvers of individuals of all stripes who want at all costs to sabotage the investigation into the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in order to strengthen the phenomenon of impunity in Haiti for ulterior and unacknowledged ends.”

At least two judges have confirmed to the Herald that they’ve received threatening phone calls from anonymous individuals demanding that they change their reports, and have been forced to leave their homes. Two court clerks who have collected evidence in the investigation have also filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office stating that they have received “serious death threats,” and were asked to include the name of prominent individuals in order to link them to the investigation.

The allegations have deepened concerns about efforts to politicize the investigation. Police confirmed that additional arrest warrants have been issued against several high-profile personalities for alleged involvement in the assassination. They were issued at the request of Port-au-Prince’s public prosecutor, Bedford Claude, and dated July 12. They have been issued against Liné Balthazar, the head of Moïse’s PHTK political party; Paul Denis, a former justice minister and leader of the INFOS political party; business owner Samir Handall, and powerful Protestant pastors and Moïse critics Gérald Bataille and Gérard Forges.

Denis and Bataille previously told the Herald that they had nothing to do with the assassination. Balthazar did not respond to a call or text, and Handall could not be reached. Forges, who confirmed that he had heard about the warrant, said it was an electoral tactic being done “to create a kind of fear so that we can run into hiding.”

“I believe they know very well how Jovenel died,” Forges said, denying any involvement or knowledge of the plot. “The people behind this are the ones who should be questioned, but instead they are serving as judge and jury.”

Under Haitian law, the suspects should have been before a judge 48 hours after their arrest. The Colombian former soldiers and two Haitian Americans were arrested in the days after the July 7 slaying, and were approaching a month behind bars when Claude, the prosecutor, met with lawyers over the weekend.

“This case was already supposed to be in front of an instructing judge,” said Samuel Madistin, a criminal defense attorney representing three individuals arrested in the case.

Madistin said defense lawyers met with Claude to discuss their concerns and that the case files are supposed to be forwarded to an instructing or investigative judge any day. Such judges work similarly to a grand jury in the United States, and are charged with overseeing the investigation, which currently involves three countries: the U.S., Colombia and Haiti.

Last week, Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s vice president and minister of foreign affairs, reiterated the country’s commitment to collaborate on the investigation but called on the government of Haiti to respect her nationals’ due process by providing them with legal representation and medical attention for injuries sustained during their apprehension by police.

Julio Santa, Honorary Consul of Colombia in Haiti, reported to Ramírez that the men had not received any kind of legal assistance or been assigned public defenders to protect their rights and due process guarantees.

Haiti police have arrested 44 individuals in connection with the shocking middle-of-the-night assassination, including the head of the president’s security detail, Jean Laguel Civil, and the man in charge of presidential guards, Dimitri Hérard. Twelve police officers have been arrested so far, including four who police said accompanied the Colombians when they stormed the president’s private residence in the Pelerin 5 neighborhood.

Haitian police are being aided in their investigation by the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and Colombian officials. They have claimed that two South Florida firms are linked to the murder, allegations the owners of those firms have refuted. One of those firms, Doral-based CTU Security, recruited the Colombian ex-special operations soldiers and two Haitian Americans accused of killing Moïse.

The Haitian Americans have said they were working as translators and the operation was not to kill the president but to arrest him and take him to the presidential palace, where Emmanuel Christian Sanon, a Haitian doctor who is also in custody, would be installed as president.

In addition to the arrests, police are also looking for a former Haitian senator, an accused drug tracker, an ex-employee of the government’s anti-corruption unit and a Supreme Court Justice. A police advisory has accused Justice Windelle Coq Thélot of assassination and armed robbery.

In an interview with the Herald, Thélot defended her innocence and said that she is a victim of political persecution.

Fired by Moïse earlier this year after she was named by opposition members as a possible replacement as provisional president, Thélot accused Haiti police of violating the law by coming after her. “I have immunity,” she said.

Haiti National Police Chief Léon Charles did not respond to questions about the criticism lodged against his judicial police investigators.

Haitian lawyers say the criminal procedural flaws being committed by police could ultimately end up benefiting the defendants and ultimately keep Haitian authorities from finding out who actually bankrolled the killing.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Gervais Charles, a well-known attorney, said about the delays in transferring the files to the judicial branch. “Usually, the [prosecutor] would send the file to the dean of the civil court and ask him to choose an instructing judge.”

Charles said after forwarding the case, it would be up to the judge to determine who police questioned and what records they pulled.

“The threat to the investigation is clear,” he said. “What is important is that the people should have been before the judicial branch much earlier.”

The investigation is not just Haiti’s most high-profile case in a century but the slow evolution of the case and complaints by judges and bailiffs about receiving threats have made it the most controversial.

Charles concedes that even judges aren’t necessarily lining up to take on the job of finding out who killed Haiti’s 58th president.

“It’s very sad,” he said. “But it’s what we are living with in Haiti. That’s why I say it’s as if we are living in a desert where everybody comes in, does what they want and there are no consequences.

“The questions in Haiti are how come this thing was so easy to pull off; how come the first lady has not had anything to say about what happened?” Charles added. “There are a lot of questions and the judicial branch is really not that interested in entering that fight.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau National Security Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.

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