A judge in Haiti has reportedly issued an arrest warrant for former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, saying that Aristide failed to appear for questioning following a summons issued earlier in the week. While some outlets reported that Aristide is facing “charges relating to acts of corruption, money laundering, misappropriation of public funds, criminal conspiracy,” as the Miami Herald noted on Tuesday, Aristide’s attorneys said that their client had not been summoned:
Haitian media, quoting unnamed sources, said that Aristide and at least 30 others have been barred from leaving the country by Judge Lamarre Belizaire and that arrest warrants have been issued for some supporters.
Belizaire could not be reached for confirmation, but a government source said Aristide was served to appear in court.
Mario Joseph, Aristide’s Haiti lawyer, denied that the former president was served. And both he and Aristide’s U.S. lawyer Ira Kurzban said no formal notice of a travel ban had been imposed. The ramblings, they said, are politically motivated.
“It is solely motivated by the upcoming potential elections in Haiti and, like all other allegations against President Aristide, has no basis in fact or reality,” Kurzban said.
Joseph said the reports are aimed at distracting the public from [suspected kidnapper Clifford] Brandt’s “organized” release from jail.
“President Aristide has not received any mandate,” Joseph said. “After Brandt’s planned freedom from prison, they are looking for anything that makes noise and distracts people from the real issues.”
The AP reports that Joseph went to the court session on Wednesday in an attempt to learn more about the summons, but Belizaire did not appear; Joseph’s colleagues with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti relayed the same account of events in a conference call today with reporters.
It is not the first time that “news” of charges against Aristide have appeared in the press; as we have previously noted, such phantom charges and grave allegations of corruption have long been central to a politicized effort to publicly demonize the former president. Yet after over a decade of supposedly imminent charges relating to alleged misconduct during Aristide’s second (2001-2004) term, Aristide has in fact never been charged. The threat of charges was a consistent part of the narrative during Aristide’s forced exile following the bloody 2004 coup d’etat against his democratically-elected (and popular) administration. Investigators with the post-coup government of Gerard Latortue, the FBI and hired guns have spent years attempting to link to Aristide to wrong-doing, but apparently have very little to show for it.
Belizaire, however, may be acting illegally himself. A judicial candidate must have 8 years experience in a related field and there also must be a 3 year period between being a prosecutor and becoming a judge in the same jurisdiction. It appears Belizaire fails to pass either requirement. Belizaire has been disbarred for 10 years, beginning as soon as he leaves his current position with the courts, as the Haitian Sentinel reports:
Lamarre Belizaire, the judge who signed arrest warrants and ordinances restricting flight for political prisoners and opponents of the administration, now has sent a summons to Radio Kiskeya for broadcasting the information that he was suspended for 10 years by the Bar of Port-au-Prince. This court action is being regarded as an attack on the liberty of expression.
Indeed the Bar of Port-au-Prince did take the action and suspended Lamarre Belizaire for 10 years, beginning at the time he leaves his position as judge, barring him from practicing law in Haiti's first city. This information was confirmed by the Secretary of the Bar of Port-au-Prince and Secretary General of the Federations of Bar Associations of Haiti, Stanley Gaston.
Belizaire has been criticized for overseeing other arrests that appear politically-motivated, such as the illegal arrest of attorney Andre Michel the night of October 22 last year (the Haitian constitution prohibits arrests after 6:00 p.m.). Michel had been pursuing a corruption case against President Martelly’s family when the arrest happened. Belizaire’s role in the Michel case led to his disbarment.
In related news that seems to have flown under the radar, the Provisional Electoral Commission (CEP) informed President Martelly this week that the legislative elections cannot happen by October 26, as Martelly had promised. While this is yet another development from which Martelly’s government may wish to distract attention, it also may be related in that Fanmi Lavalas, as Haiti’s most popular political party, remains a serious obstacle for Martelly and the U.S. government, which has continually opposed and undermined Fanmi Lavalas since it first emerged as a powerful political force. Fanmi Lavalas has been arbitrarily excluded from the last several elections, and whether that exclusion will continue into the new election cycle has loomed as a big question. The absence of the party’s head – former president Aristide – from Haiti served as a pretext for banning Fanmi Lavalas from the ballot during previous elections. With that pretext now removed, new maneuvers will be needed if the party is to be prevented from heavily influencing the elections, if not electing a slate of candidates itself (it is unclear how many candidates the party might run, or if it will even participate in the elections at all).
U.S. State Department cables made available by WikiLeaks show that criminal charges were previously suggested (by the now former head of MINUSTAH Edmond Mulet) as a way of discouraging popular support for Aristide. “The display of popular support for Aristide is very worrisome to the U.S., so indicting Titid [Aristide] before a potential comeback makes perfect sense,” Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, told the Miami Herald the last time news of charging Aristide emerged in the media, a few years ago.
In the context of election preparations – and challenges from senators to the government’s manipulation of the CEP –the specter of criminal charges against Aristide is particularly worrisome. The government has also gone after human rights defenders and journalists. Hopefully the media and the international human rights community will be more vigilant now than they were during the post-2004 coup government, which jailed numerous Fanmi Lavalas leaders and officials of the constitutional government on bogus charges.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that lawyers must practice for 10 years before becoming a judge, making Belizaire unqualigied for the position. That requirement is only for appellate judges.