Haiti arrests nearly two dozen people in foiled coup attempt

Protesters burn an American flag on February 7, 2021 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to demand the…

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Protesters burn an American flag on February 7, 2021 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to demand the resignation of president Jovenel Moïse, who seeks to extend his term of office until February 2022, which opposition groups say constitutionally ends this February 7.

AFP via Getty Images

Haiti President Jovenel Moïse announced Sunday the arrests of 23 people including a former presidential candidate, a high-ranking police inspector and a judge on the country’s highest court, all accused of plotting a coup to overthrow him and take his life as the nation’s political crisis deepens.

Moïse shared the news of the alleged coup d’etat in a Facebook Live video while standing on an airport runway with his wife as they prepared to board a flight to attend a carnival celebration. He said his presidential guard had foiled an attempt to both remove and kill him.

“Twenty people whose only dream is to run the country without you,” Moïse said.

The alleged coup plotters were arrested during a four-hour police operation at a house in Port-au-Prince, Haitian officials said. Several of those accused were taken while still wearing their pajamas.

Justice Minister Rockefeller Vincent said the group planned to infiltrate the National Palace, where the president works, and install a judge from Haiti’s Supreme Court. A copy of a speech the judge, Yvickel Dabresil, intended to deliver after the takeover was found at the home.

“It was well planned, poorly executed,” Vincent said. “It’s nothing other than a tentative coup d’etat.”

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Proestes clashed with police in several cities in Haiti Sunday as the demanded the departure of their president. Haitian authorities said they had foiled an attempt to kill President Jovenel Moise and overthrow the government, as a dispute rages over when his term ends. The plot was an “attempted coup d’etat,” according to Justice Minister Rockefeller Vincent, with authorities saying at least 23 people have been arrested, including a top judge and an official from the national police. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

The arrests came after months of mounting tensions between Moïse and the nation’s opposition, which contends the president’s term ended Sunday and decried the detentions as a crackdown on dissent. The embattled leader argues he has another year in office. The brewing constitutional crisis comes on the heels of an uptick in gang-driven crime, including kidnappings for ransom. Moïse has been ruling by decree since last year, after dismissing most of the legislature.

Magistrates on Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judiciary Power, a group charged with ensuring the independence of the nation’s judiciary, said they were “deeply concerned by the serious threats resulting from a lack of political agreement” and that the president’s term ended Sunday.

The country’s Supreme Court has thus far refused to enter the debate, and there is no constitutional judiciary in Haiti that could step in to settle the crisis. So far, both Moïse and the opposition have refused to sit at a negotiating table. Recent attempts by the current head of the Senate for a national dialogue have fizzled.

In their statement, the Superior Council said the standoff risks “shaking down the very foundations of the nation and putting in peril the sovereignty of the state.”

On Friday, the Biden administration announced it supports Moïse’s contention that his term in office should last until 2022, a stance also backed by Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro and the United Nations. A group of U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s president pro tempore, disagrees and and has asked the Biden administration to back a transition government in Haiti.

Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, said the State Department’s statement had emboldened Moïse.

“The presidential term of Jovenel finished at midnight and the executive is using the police to do set-ups, to do repression and arrest people,” Esperance said. “He feels he’s comfortable after the declaration of the State Department, which lead to him making this big declaration and them making the arrests.”

In providing details about the arrests, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe and Haiti National Police Chief Leon Charles said ample evidence was found at the scene, including cash, ammunition, a machete and seven guns. The arrested individuals include a Haiti National Police inspector, Marie Louise Gauthier, and her sister, Dr. Marie Antoinette Gauthier, a former presidential candidate and one-time political party leader.

Recordings were shared on social media of an alleged conversation between the police inspector and the head of the palace presidential guard, Dimitri Hérard.

“These people had contacted the person responsible for the security in the National Palace, who had the responsibility to arrest the president, to take him to the Habitation Petit Bois and to facilitate the installation of the new provisional president to do the transition,” Jouthe said, mentioning the name of the residence where the arrests took place.

The alleged coup comes during what opponents and human rights leaders have described as a crackdown against detractors of the president. As news of the detentions spread, anti-government protesters and police clashed in several cities.

The day before, police broke down the gate to a home belonging to former Port-au-Prince Mayor Youri Chevry in order to arrest him. They didn’t find him, but confiscated his vehicle. The incident was documented by his sister-in law, Anne-René Louis, on Twitter. She said police also took two bulletproof vests, a leather gun holder and a pack of 1,000 gourdes, or about $13, from a backpack, as well as a pair of Longchamp sunglasses from her car and more cash from a bag.

“Now my kid is a mess, my house is a mess, my old house has no gate, my people r shaken,” she tweeted.

Two weeks earlier, former opposition Sen. Nenel Cassy was arrested during an opposition protest. Police eventually released him after a crowd blocked streets to prevent police from transporting him to a jail in another town. Cassy, who is in hiding, said he continues to be targeted. On Sunday, police fired tear gas into his residence while his elderly parents were inside, he said.

“It’s a repression that is very really brutal,” he said. “We have the police doing repression; armed groups that are everywhere firing on the population, preventing them from taking to the streets. They are arresting people, the justice cannot function. These guys have taken us hostage.”

Opposition groups have been planning for a post-Moïse Haiti, with a coalition of opposition parties recently signing onto an accord promoting a two-year transition led by a judge on the Supreme Court, efforts aimed at securing a peaceful transition, proponents said.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Michigan, who follows Haiti closely, said he was “deeply saddened” but not surprised “that on what should be his final day in office Jovenel Moïse has escalated his anti-democratic campaign with a mass arrest of opposition officials and others.”

“With no evidence to support his claims of a conspiracy against his life, Moïse is demonstrating what my colleagues and I have said: There is zero chance of real elections, real democracy or real accountability while he remains in power,” Levin said.

Haitian officials said among the evidence they found of a tentative coup was a “protocol of intent” document with the high court judge’s signature. The document, dated October 2020, was read over local radio in Creole, and outlined the group’s argument for a transition and what it would look like.

Since taking office in 2017, the letter said, Moïse suffered “from a deficit of legitimacy.” A transition, the letter’s signatories argued, was inevitable.

While officials said 23 people had been arrested, a human rights group could only verify 18 detentions.

Judge Jean Wilner Morin, president of the National Association of Haitian Magistrates, said police do not have the authority to arrest Dabresil, the Supreme Court judge. He visited the magistrate in his jail cell and said Dabresil told him he’d been awoken from his sleep at 2 a.m. when police fired tear gas into the house where he and others were taken into custody. Morin said the judge also told him a police officer had kicked him during the arrest.

He added that Dabresil, a diabetic, had not been given food or water until around 5 p.m., when his family was allowed to bring it to him in jail.

“It’s an arrest that is arbitrary and illegal,” Morin said. “They didn’t catch the judge doing anything wrong or in a commission of crime.”

In a second address to the nation later Sunday, Moïse pushed back on accusations that he is an autocratic ruler.

“I’m not a dictator,” he said.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.