Fanmi Lavalas leaders report that the police that have guarded former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s residence since he returned to Haiti in 2011 were removed around 1:00 a.m. this morning. It is unclear who ordered the removal of the state security agents, but Agence Haitienne de Presse is reporting that Haitian National Police deny giving the order, and that a “pro-government source” says the orders came from the National Palace. This news conflicts with reports yesterday that Aristide is being placed under house arrest. While Judge Lamarre Belizaire reportedly issued an order for “agents of the prison administration, known as APENA” to be placed around Aristide’s house in Tabarre (according to the Caribbean Media Corporation) and “agents of the Central Department of the Judicial Police” to guard the perimeter of his residence, witnesses on the ground say it appears that law enforcement agencies have ignored Belizaire’s order. Under Haitian law, house arrest has no legal basis.
Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, whose sister organization the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux’s Managing Attorney Mario Joseph represents Aristide, sees the withdrawal of security as retaliation against Aristide for exercising his civil rights. Specifically, Aristide’s lawyers’ are seeking the recusal and dismissal of Judge Belizaire, who is already barred from practicing law for 10 years after he leaves his position as judge.
Concannon says that the message is that “If you assert your civil rights, we’re going to expose you and your family to being killed.” He sees it as a clear signal from the Haitian government that “the police will not come to Aristide’s aid if something happens.” The secretive way in which the security was pulled, in the dead of night, is worrying, he notes.
Aristide continues to have many enemies in Haiti. He was twice ousted in violent coups, in 1991 and 2004. Some of the people involved in the coups and in the killing of Fanmi Lavalas members and other Aristide supporters continue to walk free in Haiti. Haiti’s former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier – who was ousted in a popular uprising by the grassroots movement that later provided the base for Aristide’s party – also lives freely in Haiti despite the various human rights atrocities committed during his rule and the diverting of hundreds of millions of dollars from the government for his family’s personal use.
There have been numerous recent attacks and threats against human rights defenders and political activists. Haïti Liberté reports:
On Wed., Aug. 20 in Cité Soleil, Clifford Charles, a member of the Fanmi Lavalas Political Organization was killed following a demonstration by residents demanding the release of their imprisoned comrade Louima Louis Juste in the National Penitentiary for the past six months for his political opinions.
Human rights defender Daniel Dorsinvil and his wife Girldy Larêche were murdered earlier this year. Well-known Fanmi Lavalas leader and human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine remains missing after being forcibly disappeared in 2007, to name a few other examples.
In this context, the danger to Aristide is real, and it is clear that the Martelly government is putting his life and safety at risk.
Aristide continues to be widely popular, as was seen when thousands of people accompanied his caravan from the airport to his residence in 2011. Over the past weeks, crowds of supporters have repeatedly gathered outside Aristide’s residence following rumors and news of his pending arrest. The AP reported on demonstrations in support of Aristide yesterday on the 26th anniversary of the most infamous assassination attempt against him, when death squads killed at least 13 people and injured 80 more at the St. Jean Bosco church where Aristide was saying mass. The AP’s Evens Sanon writes:
Supporters promised major protests would erupt if what they see as a politically motivated arrest is carried out.
“There is only one person who represents the people of Haiti and his name is President Aristide,” 37-year-old Lionel Patrick said in the yard of the church, which was destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake. “If anything happens to him, Haiti is going to be shut down.”
Any attack on Aristide’s residence is likely to result in many additional casualties.
As we have pointed out previously, the supposedly impending charges and arrest of Aristide – and now the new threat to his security – may be intended to distract from the postponement, yet again, of legislative and local elections that were supposed to be held on October 26. With another third of senate seats expiring next year, as well as the entire House of Deputies, the Martelly administration will be unencumbered by the check-and-balance of the legislature on his authority if elections are not held soon. He also could be in a position to replace local mayors with more appointed “municipal agents,” as he’s already done with 130 of them.
This real exercise of anti-democratic behavior by the current administration is getting far less attention than the rehashed allegations of corruption targeting a past president, even though 10 years of investigations in Haiti and a grand jury in the U.S. have failed to produce evidence of actual corruption by Aristide that could support criminal charges.
The security team’s unusual withdrawal is not just dangerous for Aristide, his wife and daughter. It puts the reputation of the Martelly administration, and its chief international supporter, the Obama administration on the line. If anything does happen to the Aristide residence, fingers will be pointed at President Martelly and the U.S. Embassy. Many of those fingers will come from the hands of irate Lavalas supporters, who will likely take to the streets in numbers that will cause significant disruption in Haiti.