The armed palace police officers awoke him in the middle of the night, mockingly called him “president,” threatened to kill him and placed him under arrest. Now one of Haiti’s most high-profile judges, Yvickel Dabrésil, is in hiding, fearful for his life as his nation’s political turmoil deepens.
In an interview with the Miami Herald Wednesday, the magistrate at the center of an alleged plot to kill and overthrow President Jovenel Moïse recounted his detention and asserted his innocence, claiming the entire ordeal is a set-up.
“It was a coup that they prepared for the seventh of February to discredit the opposition,” said Dabrésil, breaking his silence. “The names of three judges were being circulated, and since I was the one whom they found, they reacted. If they could have eliminated all three of these judges, they would have eliminated them.”
A Supreme Court judge for the past two years, Dabrésil, 53, was arrested shortly before 3 a.m. on Feb. 7, the day Haiti’s opposition believes Moïse’s presidential term ended. Moïse argues he still has a year left in office and on that day announced an attempted coup.
The allegations have roiled Haiti, adding to a deepening constitutional crisis that has spawned anti-government protests, rival claims to the presidency and a standoff between the president and the judiciary.
At the center of the latest turmoil are Dabrésil and 17 other still imprisoned Haitians accused of trying to overthrow and kill the president. Audio tapes leaked online in the aftermath, allegedly capturing the accused coup plotters in action, suggest those arrested believed they were on a State Department-sanctioned mission to install a transitional government after Moïse’s departure.
During one of the exchanges, a woman is heard saying, “Listen, I received orders from the State Department.”
A man responded: “They contacted me as well so that’s why I was waiting for your call. I’m listening, commander.”
Haiti Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe alluded to the recordings while providing additional details about the arrests.
“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 residential development where the arrests took place.
Dabrésil refuted allegations from authorities that he was staying overnight in one of several bungalows with others detained in the alleged plot because they were planning an attack. Instead, he said he often sleeps at the house, which he considers a second home, on nights where he can’t get home because of Haiti’s warring gangs and recent kidnapping spike. He couldn’t address why the others, including a former presidential candidate and high-ranking Haitian police inspector, were arrested in the same development, which has since been seized by Haitian government officials.
“I am not a politician,” he said. “I am more of a technician.”
Dabrésil said he was asleep with his security keeping watch outside when specialized police officers with the Haiti National Police in charge of security for the National Palace stormed the residential development. They threw two tear gas grenades inside his home to force his exit, he said. After huddling inside for 45 minutes, he heard a voice commanding that officers spray the house with bullets. That’s when he finally decided to walk out.
He said he told the officers that he was a judge on the country’s highest court, but they arrested him anyway. He also contends the arrest was illegal because under Haitian law detentions cannot take place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless it’s during the act of a crime.
“They came and broke all of the windows and said I was engaged in a coup d’etat,” Dabrésil said. “I asked them, ‘How can there be a coup d’etat? With how many people did they find me? There were two guns, M4s, that weren’t even next to my bed. They were with my security.”
The automatic weapons, which Haiti police later listed as evidence, were provided to him by the police for his protection when he was an appeals court judge overseeing a high-profile and still unsolved murder case — that of Haitian journalist and agronomist Jean Léopold Dominique, Dabrésil said.
Dabrésil acknowledges that a presidential speech authorities found at his home belonged to him. But it was more of an outline, he said during a later interview on Radio Kiskeya, than an actual speech. He had written down a few lines, he said, at the insistence of friends who heard his name being mentioned by the opposition as a possible interim replacement for Moïse.
Since the arrest, some opposition leaders have suggested that the group was framed, allegedly by a man purporting to be Daniel Whitman, who worked for the U.S. government from 1985 to 2009. Dabrésil denies having any contact with anyone alleging to be Whitman, and Whitman himself said he doesn’t know how his name surfaced in the saga.
“[It’s a] pretty clear case of impersonation, it seems, and identity theft,” Whitman said. “Don’t know who would have thought this could serve a purpose.”
Roody Metellus, a former Haitian diplomat and member of the opposition, backed up that assertion, saying he investigated and discovered that someone was using Whitman’s name and calling from a Miami number registered to someone else. If not for his inquiry, Metellus said other members would likely have been ensnared in the incident.
Asked whether Whitman was working on behalf of the State Department in making contact with Haitian leaders to plan a post-Moïse transition, a spokesperson said they do not discuss cases involving private U.S. citizens without their written consent.
“It is our well-established practice to conduct diplomatic relations through our embassies, not private individuals. And we have a very capable embassy and ambassador in Port-au-Prince,” the spokesperson said.
In the days since his arrest and eventual release, Dabrésil has found himself out of a job. Moïse removed him from the bench along with two other justices named by the opposition as potential replacements. The move has been denounced as illegal, along with Moïse’s appointment of three magistrates to the high court, which experts say is designed to pack the judiciary with loyalists.
Some Haiti observers believe the Supreme Court itself bears some of the responsibility for the current crisis. Though it refused late last year to swear in a nine-member elections commission that was unilaterally appointed by the president, it has been silent about all of the decrees he has taken — several of which lawyers have said were illegal and overreaching.
Only after Dabrésil, the court’s youngest judge, and his two fellow justices were removed did the issue of the government’s questionable actions came to the forefront.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Julie Chung cited the decision in a tweet she issued Tuesday.
“I am alarmed by recent authoritarian and undemocratic acts — from unilateral removals and appointments of Supreme Court judges to attacks against journalists,” she said. “Respect for democratic norms is vital and non-negotiable.”
Dabrésil, who welcomes the Biden administration’s stance, said he’s now fighting to not only get his job back but to clear his name and get the others out of jail. He still faces charges, since his release was based on a technicality given his status.
Seven individuals close to him, including his Haiti National Police detail and friends who were visiting him, are among those who remain jailed.
“I didn’t want to be released. I wanted to stay in jail to be in solidarity with the others but I was told to go,” he said, adding that he has been told that his life was in danger.
Though Dabrésil says he has a battery of lawyers working on his behalf, the case is far from reaching a solution. Haiti’s judiciary is plagued with corruption and far from independent. Making matters even more challenging, four different judges associations have called for an indefinite shutdown of the justice system to force the president to respect the constitution following his recent decrees against the Supreme Court.
Dabrésil said that the justice system today, “is under all forms of pressure.” Still, he’s putting his faith in his fellow judges.
“I feel today that those who make up the justice system have to find a way to clean the image of the justice system in relation to this case because when you take a Supreme Court judge and imprison him, I don’t know what name you can even give it,” he said. “I think it’s a moment for the justice system to repair its image, and do something historic.”