Two former high-ranking government officials in Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s administration and an ex-cop turned influential gang leader have been sanctioned by the Trump administration for their involvement in a 2018 Haiti massacre that left scores dead, homes torched and families in a low-income Port-au-Prince neighborhood displaced.
Jimmy Cherizier, known as “Barbecue,” Fednel Monchery and Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan were sanctioned Thursday by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency in charge of enforcing U.S. sanctions, for their role in the La Saline massacre. Monchery and Duplan were senior officials in Moïse’s administration when they allegedly spearheaded the killings and were only eventually fired after pressure from Haitian civil society.
The trio has been sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is using these sanctions along with the Department of State’s 7031(c) visa restriction to promote accountability and deter human-rights abuses and corruption in Haiti and elsewhere.
“In total, the United States and the United Kingdom designated 37 actors in the past 48 hours in connection with corruption or serious human rights abuse,” Pompeo said.
Responding to the news, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who has been concerned about the troubling human rights situation in Haiti and the lack of justice in the horrific killings, tweeted that the sanctions are “an important step on the road to accountability.”
Treasury’s announcement came on International Human Rights Day, during which Haiti’s alarming violence degrading human rights was also the focus of a 2 p.m. virtual hearing by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“As we recognize International Human Rights Day, the United States stands with innocent civilians around the globe who have been victims of violence and oppression,” said U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin G. Muzinich.
The U.S. has been the object of harsh criticism by human rights defenders in Haiti. They have accused the U.S. of being indifferent to the ongoing deterioration of human rights in the country and the rise in criminality by armed gangs, some of which are said to be behind the kidnappings.
Last week, several Haitians showed their disgust by lying in the streets of the capital, blocking traffic and holding up placards criticizing the U.S.
But Thursday’s announcement is significant, even if it comes two years after the massacre and a year after a United Nations investigation concluded that the two-day reign of terror in the La Saline neighborhood was condoned by the Haitian government. It signals not only the Trump administration’s growing frustration with Haiti overall, but in particular with its dysfunctional judiciary.
That judiciary, the Treasury Department said in its statement, bolsters the country’s armed gangs and insecurity problem and it “does not prosecute those responsible for attacks on civilians.”
“These gangs, with the support of some Haitian politicians, repress political dissent in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods known to participate in anti-government demonstrations,” the statement said. “In exchange for executing attacks designed to create instability and silence the Port-au-Prince population’s demands for improved living conditions, gangs receive money, political protection and enough firearms to reportedly make them better armed than the Haitian National Police.”
The assertion was dismissed by Haiti’s ambassador to the OAS, Bocchit Edmond, who told members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that “there is political will to make the justice system more robust.”
He also said that the government does not see La Saline victims as political partisans, but as citizens owed justice.
At least 185 Haitians have died this year in massacres or attacks by armed gangs in the metropolitan Port-au-Prince area, according to a report published Thursday by the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights. This includes 25 women and five minors, who lost their lives in armed attacks perpetrated by gangs. Also, at least 525 deaths have been registered on the streets of Port-au-Prince as a result of worsening violence.
“There have been unprecedented cases of human-rights violations,” the non-governmental human rights organization said.
Haitians have for months been protesting against their dysfunctional judiciary. On Thursday, however, the focus in Port-au-Prince wasn’t on corrupt judges but rather the alarming spike in violence that is sweeping the country.
“The people of Haiti are rising up, speaking out and on the national day celebrating human rights,” human rights attorney Mario Joseph told the commission. Joseph’s Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti both requested Thursday’s human rights hearing. Joseph later asked that Haiti be put under oversight, requiring visits to the country by the OAS commission.
Earlier in the day, thousands had taken to the streets of Port-au-Prince and the nearby city of Gonaives in a “Walk for Life” to denounce widespread violence. As they walked, they shouted, “We march for life,” and called for an end to kidnappings. Others demanded the resignation of Moïse, who has been ruling by decree since January and seems incapable of controlling the violence.
Organized by various human rights organizations in Haiti, the demonstrations were largely peaceful, although the Haiti National Police did fire tear gas at a gathering crowd in front of the ministry of justice on the Champ de Mars. Some protesters were also spotted throwing rocks at police and burned tires in defiance of a new presidential decree redefining tire burning and fiery barricades on public roads as terrorist acts punishable by a fine and years of imprisonment.
One of the scenes of burning tires came from the vicinity where a locally hired security agent who works at the U.S. Embassy was reported to be the latest victim of a kidnapping, snatched in the Turgeau neighborhood while on his way home. There were also unconfirmed reports on social media of additional kidnappings.
“The situation is dire,” Joseph said. “We have a political crisis upon us and impunity has become generalized.”
Joseph said the increasing violence, kidnappings and savage killings are taking a toll on the country’s 11 million residents. He noted that in addition to La Saline there had been many other massacres and that this one in particular has brought back the darkest hours of the Duvalier family dictatorship.
“Haitians deserve justice,” Joseph said. “La Saline was the victim of the horrors of the present regime. Civilians were massacred, both women and little girls were gang raped, many others were tortured and countless others were disappeared. This led to forced displacements of hundreds of thousands of families that were already living precariously.”
While members of the commission demanded more concrete steps from the government to move toward a more robust justice system and questioned the lack of political will from the Haitian government, Edmond dismissed the criticism that Moïse is a human rights violator and is not interested in providing access to justice.
“At some point we need to say, who should be held responsible for ensuring that the justice system is independent? This is something that really requires the participation of everyone, including human rights organizations,” Edmond said. “In some way, we all hold responsibility and have to answer for that dysfunction.”
On La Saline, Edmond said, there is a judicial process under way, but he did not offer much detail on why the investigation, according to advocates, has been stalled.
“We need to allow for that process to play out. We cannot ask for the executive to meddle in that procedure,” he said. “Usually there is a lot of talk about a judicial system that is not independent, but the executive for this very reason needs to not get involved in things that have to do with the judicial system.
“Accusing the justice system of not being independent and asking the executive to step in is an idea that conflicts,” Edmond said.