Haiti’s disorganized judicial branch obstructs cases big and small, including the Moïse assassination, hampers livelihoods and stymies justice for all Haitians, observers and workers say.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — For more than two years, Harry Junior Michel has been locked up in an overcrowded city jail, accused of sexually assaulting a woman, a crime his family and friends say Michel did not commit. For more than two years, Michel still has not been brought in front of a judge to formally proclaim his innocence.
“In Haiti, injustice wins out more often than not,” says Presley André, a friend of Michel’s. “The [current] justice system should be reformed from top to bottom to form a more equitable version.”
Haiti’s justice system has long been dysfunctional, viewed as a corruptible branch that largely serves the interests of ruling politicians and moneyed citizens. For one, a task as simple as obtaining judicial records could be daunting. Between the inconsistent filing systems, clerks charging fees illegally to retrieve case files and prosecutors being unable to locate documents in time for trials, the integrity of the system has always been tenuous.
Then, following the assassination of then-president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, gang violence has rendered judicial office locations too unsafe for workers, prompting them to go on strike — further hobbling the system. Just last month, in a brazen armed invasion, gangs took over the main courthouse in Port-au-Prince and have still not relinquished control of the building for attorneys, judges and clerks to resume working.
Since then, numerous judges and court clerks have taken to the streets or resorted to new strikes to demand higher salaries, better working conditions and appropriate tools to help build public confidence in Haiti’s judicial system. On April 12, the National Association of Haitian Clerks, ANAGH, organized a work stoppage to protest against salary disparities and discrimination.
The Haitian public also hears about scenarios of people in power playing games, further crippling the system. In December 2021, prosecutors released a wanted notice for Vitelhomme Innocent, a well-known gang leader, to prosecute him on charges of attempted murder, kidnapping for ransom and theft of vehicles. A judge, Esaï Pierre-Louis, canceled the wanted notice. Later, he was put on administrative leave with pay.
Amid such corrupt practices, the failure to bring to justice the killers of Moïse’s and many others, the gangs taking control and rise in what activists call “illegal and arbitrary preventive detentions,” what little trust the public had in Haiti’s overwhelmed justice system is gone.
“It is worrisome that justice is in this state,” Marie Suzy Legros, head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, told The Haitian Times. “However, justice will never die even if today it has become the bad mother of those it had to protect.”
“Justice must work in a climate of peace and security to say the word of the law,” adds Legros demanding once again the relocation of the courthouse.
She further indicated that the Port-au-Prince Bar Association is awaiting for court hearings to resume to relaunch the judicial file of the assassination of MonferrierDorval.
Moïse investigation among countless stalled
Legros is all too familiar with the failures of the justice system. After all, she became head of the Port-au-Prince Bar, the country’s largest, after its former leader Monferrier Dorval was mysteriously gunned down in his driveway. Up until the Moïse murder, the August 2020 killing was the most high profile of Haiti’s cases.
Yet, two years later, the stalled Dorval investigation has become a leading example only second to Moïse’s — among countless cases left unsolved — of Haiti’s justice system failing its citizens, some say.
“As we speak, there is no progress in the justice system in the case of the assassination of the former Bâtonnier Dorval,” Legros said during a phone interview. “We are awaiting the restart of the hearings to relaunch the case.”
Currently, the courts of justice only receive urgent files, such as complaints, legalization of deeds and requests for document executions. No hearings with an audience present are being held. Legros said that approach slows down the progress of certain cases, including that of Dorval. Further, the process of selecting judges and attacks on the courts continue to undermine the autonomy of the judiciary and the lack of respect for the rule of law.
Despite resource limitations and continued security concerns, Legros said, the Central Direction of the Judiciary Police has issued a report of the Dorval investigation. Various summonses have been made, including that of some who were close to Moise at the time. Among them, First Lady Martine Moïse, former adviser Guichard Doré, then-Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe and attorney Reynold George.
In many ways, the slow progress of the Dorval was a harbinger of what to expect with the Moïse investigation, some Haitians have said. While people hoped Moïse’s killers would be captured swiftly because he was a head of state, Haiti’s justice system was already too weak to rise to the occasion. Even with support from the United States, Colombia, Jamaica and a slew of other nations helping with fugitives, ultimately, the crime happened on Haitian soil. And it’s there that Haitian police and prosecutors must bring the perpetrators to justice.
Iswick Théophin, a lawyer and a legal officer for the People’s Emancipation Reform Party said that to understand the lack of structure in the judiciary system today, it is necessary to take into account the political aspect of the question. By influencing the process by which justices are elected, many political actors aim to find corrupt allies willing to ensure their protection and impunity for their misdeeds.
“If the authorities in the executive and legislative branches who are responsible for appointing and designating people in the judicial system are themselves in trouble with the law, they will only appoint in the system people who will protect them,” Théophin said.
Théophin is the president of the organization “We are Dorval” or “Nou se Dorval” in creole, created to seek justice for the former judge.
“We now have a rotten judicial system.” “We cannot hope for an impartial, professional and well-structured justice system because the decisions of the judges are often remote-controlled.”
As of July 7, the one-year anniversary of the killing, the case remains unsolved and investigators no closer to declaring a clear motive. This, despite countless potential motives and the arrest of nearly 50 people, including two alleged masterminds, suspected financial backers and links to runaway drug trafficking in Haiti.
To date, five judges have been appointed to conduct the investigation, and failed. All but one have faced difficulties and withdrew from the case due to the lack of means of work and fear for their personal safety. One, Gary Orélien, was removed from the case in a corruption scandal. Another judge, Merlan Belabre, did not receive the case docket until the end of his 2-month term. A fifth judge, Walther Wesser Voltaire, has been appointed but also has yet to receive the case docket.
Complicating the problem is the gangs intimidating judicial staff and impeding the regular flow of duties at the courthouses. Haiti’s Court of First Instance and Court of Appeals have not functioned properly for the past two years. Proceedings are often interrupted by a powerful armed gang, called “Five Seconds”, that operates in the dangerous Bicentenaire area, where the main courthouse is located.
On June 10, armed bandits took over the Port-au-Prince Palace of Justice, forcing government prosecutors, judges and lawyers to flee. It was the fourth attack on the courthouse since May including three previous robberies. On local radio, Jacques Lafontant, Port-au-Prince government commissioner, said members of the gang had smashed windows, vandalized the judges’ courtrooms, seized court files, and stole four vehicles.
“Haiti is plunging into an abyss,” Martin Ainé, president of ANAGH, told The Haitian Times. “Justice should be a strength. But in Haiti today, it is the opposite, with bandits taking justice hostage.”
“It is a great loss for the country,” Ainé added. “ANAGH asks the authorities to live up to their responsibility.”
Judicial activities have not yet resumed in the highest courthouse. Court services such as legalizing documents, filing complaints, receipt of requests and correspondence have been temporarily transferred to the court of the southern section of Port-au-Prince.
Prisoners languish in prolonged detention
The National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince was built for 800 prisoners. These days, it houses about 3,800. According to the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), two human rights groups that reported these figures, about 11,000 inmates were being held in prisons across Haiti in 2021.
One of them is Harry Junior Michel, 28.
For two years and six months, Michel has been locked up in the Port-au-Prince jail and has yet to see a judge to defend himself against the sexual assault charges that landed him there. According to Michel’s family, he was arrested by police friends of his accuser, without proof or a warrant, back in January 2020.
The family summoned the woman to the courthouse, but she never appeared, Michel’s cousin told The Haitian Times. Soon after, the family began receiving threats. When Michel’s uncle sought to pressure authorities on the case, the threats increased.
“Michel is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit,” said the cousin who requested that her name be withheld because the family has received numerous threats. “This case has really scared all of us, and the justice system says nothing about it.”
The list of prisoners awaiting trial, like Michel, is very long. They comprise the 70% of inmates that, according to AVRED-Haïti, are being held with no trial.
Staffers with AVRED-Haïti had made regular visits to the country’s prisons to collect the data. The advocates said prolonged pre-trial detention constitutes a violation of the rights of prisoners provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“The Ministry of Justice, the Office for the Citizen’s Protection and the prosecutors of the courts of First Instance should [help] the prisoners [find justice],” Jude Chéry, AVRED-Haïti’s president, said. “But they do not do this work on a regular basis.”
“It’s understood that people no longer trust the judicial system because their lives and their property are not worthy to the judicial authorities,” Théophin said.
Théophin said there cannot be an effective and efficient institution that can investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate crime to reduce corruption and impunity without a political will. Haiti’s justice system needs transparency and integrity with a government made up of people who will apply the laws based on established principles not on their personal interests and feelings.
“We must depatronise justice,” Théophin said. “If there is no political will endowed with morality in the country, the solution to strengthening the Haitian justice won’t happen anytime soo.”