‘Legal bandits’ could take charge in Haiti’s parliament

August 13, 2015

The candidate for Haiti’s lower house had just left the studio of a popular morning radio show last week when a specialized unit of the Haitian National Police, acting on an April 2015 forgery warrant, picked him up and carted him off to jail.

Hours later, Alfredo Antoine, who previously spent three years in jail and is running under Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul’s KID political banner in Sunday’s legislative elections, was ordered released by a judge. As a candidate, Antoine automatically enjoys immunity from arrest under Haiti’s current electoral law.

Antoine’s arrest and quick release underscore the dilemma facing Haiti’s 5.8 million registered voters as the nation prepares to finally hold a long-delayed vote to restore its defunct parliament and end President Michel Martelly’s one-man rule.

Along with career politicians, entrepreneurs and activists, voters must also choose from dozens of accused kidnappers, drug dealers and others with criminal records who managed to make the final cut of the 1,855 candidates vying for 139 legislative seats, according to the country’s leading human rights group.

“There are people who are candidates who had their visa revoked by the United States” because they are implicated in criminal activities, said Marie Yolene Gilles, assistant program director of the National Human Rights Defense Network/Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH). The network’s calls to disqualify some candidates have been ignored by the Provisional Electoral Council, known by its French acronym, the CEP.

“One thing is certain,” Gilles said, “these elections will unleash a post-electoral crisis because the CEP didn’t do its job.”

Three years delayed, the vote is key to reconstituting the democratic structure in Haiti where parliament dissolved eight months ago amid a political crisis. But instead of a step forward, some fear that the elections will be just another effort to keep plundering the impoverished nation where corruption and crime don’t rank as top problems in polls.

Many see the candidates’ inclusion as a consequence of the weakness of a system where, they say, justice is for sale and more than 80 percent of the people jailed spend years in pre-trial detention without seeing a judge.

“It’s a weakness of the institutions. The justice system didn’t do its job,” said Gilles. Haiti’s failure to install a permanent electoral council also is to blame, she said. “Every CEP that comes in is obligated to create a new electoral law.”

When asked about candidates with criminal allegations against them, elections officials have said in local press interviews that there is a presumption of innocence. The electoral law, like the Constitution, requires a criminal conviction for disqualification.

But a Haitian National Police official, who asked to speak anonymously because he’s not authorized to give interviews, said this is the first time in recent memory the law governing elections does not require potential candidates to present a police certificate indicating whether they have a criminal history.

Still, in the days before registration closed, many did line up at the offices of the judicial police, known as DCPJ, to apply for the certificate in order to register. But after learning that it wasn’t required, some never returned to pick up their negative certificates. Other potential candidates, said the police official, were arrested on the spot after their outstanding warrants showed up, thwartingtheir registration.

“Many candidates have a negative police report. Despite that, they were approved,” said the police official who believes the number exceeds 31.

What is required under the law is a good citizen certificate from a justice of the peace and a judicial record from the court. One presidential candidate told the Miami Herald that when he handed his clean criminal record to an elections official as he registered, he was told, “It’s not needed. The law doesn’t require it.”

Nowhere in the current law does it explicitly say a police certificate is required. And while human rights advocates believe it’s a prerequisite for the good citizen certificate, in practice, justices of the peace don’t ask for the criminal records, the police official and others said.

Pierre-Louis Opont, the head of the Provisional Electoral Council, did not respond to several requests for comment from the Herald.

Meanwhile, candidates can only be arrested if they are caught committing a crime. That immunity is extended once they are elected, making them practically untouchable throughout their six-year terms as senators, four years as deputies and five years as president.

The immunity issue was highlighted in 2012 when two members of the lower Chamber of Deputies, Rodriguez Sejour and M’Zou Naya Bélange Jean-Baptiste, were accused of orchestrating the murder of police officer Walky Calixte. The men were later indicted by a Haitian investigative judge, Jean Wilner Morin, who demanded that their parliamentary immunity be lifted. Fellow lawmakers refused. In June, an appeals court upheld Morin’s order. The decision came three years after Morin’s order, and after parliament had dissolved. The men are still awaiting trial, although local media report that Sejour has fled the country.

The immunity perk, alone, is the reason why many are running for elected office, observers say.

When Antoine went to apply for his criminal record from DCPJ on March 23, the unit didn’t know a judge had issued an arrest warrant. They were notified in July and picked him up 15 days later.

“His arrest wasn’t legal,” said Valéry Numa, the radio host of the Vision 2000 morning program.

This isn’t the first time Haitians have faced an election with candidates on the ballot accused of criminal wrongdoing.

In 2006, Willot Joseph was a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies while in jail for vehicle theft. Nevertheless, he won office and was released to assume the post. Four years later, after finishing his term in the lower house, Joseph tried to run for the Senate but a new CEP disqualified him.

This year, however, Joseph’s candidacy for the Senate under President Michel Martelly’s PHTK party banner was accepted.

Martelly is a singer who performed under the stage name “Sweet Micky” and parlayed his celebrity status into becoming president. To some, his 2008 song,Bandi Legal (Legal Bandit), has come to describe the incoming parliament.

“Because Martelly is president, it has opened an air duct. Almost everyone here thinks they can be president,” said Numa. And just as Martelly remade himself, Numa said, “you have candidates who are trying to remake themselves.”

One such character was Levelt Francois, who was removed from the list of presidential candidates because of a drug conviction after first being approved. After the electoral council’s decision, Francois made the radio news rounds, including Numa’s show, professing his innocence and claiming to be a victim of mistaken identity.

According to a file provided by Gilles’ organization, however, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince received a July 2002 letter from U.S. immigration officials requesting travel documents for Francois who had been convicted in 1988 of “possession with the intent to distribute crack and cocaine.” A deportation order was entered for him in 1997.

The most well-known of the infamous candidates running is former Haitian police official-turned-coup leader, Guy Philippe. Philippe, who led a bloody coup against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, was disqualified from running for a Senate seat in 2009. This spring, however, Philippe’s candidacy to represent the Grand’Anse region in the Senate was approved.

In a radio interview, Philippe said all of his documents were in order. Gilles, however, said the human rights group confirmed that Philippe never received his criminal record from the judicial police. In fact, he never applied, said the police source.

Philippe is wanted in the U.S. under a sealed drug indictment and is the subject of a Haitian police arrest warrant seeking his extradition. When diplomats asked elections officials how Philippe was allowed to run, they were told no one challenged his candidacy, according to another source privy to the inquiries.

“He’s circulating; he’s campaigning,” Gilles said. “Don’t be surprised if you have a parliament with Guy Philippe in it. I don’t know how the U.S. government will deal with him as a lawmaker.”

With only days left before the vote, Numa says it’s either up to Haiti’s judicial system to step in or voters to use the ballot box to support rule of law. “What you have is an election of money and guns that’s being conducted now,” he said.