The political climate was tense in Haiti’s capital Wednesday as scores of demonstrators and opposition lawmakers protested the arrest of a prominent attorney leading a corruption case against the first family.
Protestors showed up at the downtown Port-au-Prince courthouse where André Michel, a lawyer and government critic, was scheduled for an appearance after his arrest Tuesday night.
Michel was accused of obstructing justice after refusing to allow police and the district attorney to search his car. His arrest, well after a 6 p.m. constitutionally-mandated cutoff for arrests not related to immediate criminal events, triggered protests and accusations that Haiti had re-reentered a dictatorial era.
“Once again the executive has continued with its flagrant violation of the Haitian Constitution,’’ said Sen. Francky Exius.
As protestors denounced Michel’s arrest, President Michel Martelly shared a brief phone call with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday afternoon. A White House statement made no mention of the demonstrations, which earlier in the day triggered a warning from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince about rock throwing near the presidential palace.
The conversation, instead, focused on Haiti’s long delayed legislative and local elections, according to the White House.
The statement said Biden “welcomed President Martelly’s commitment to continue working to further strengthen Haiti’s democratic institutions, including by maintaining a strong and independent legislative branch.”
“The Vice President commended President Martelly for his efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues,” and support the work of an electoral council charged with setting a date to hold elections.
The delay in holding elections has been a source of mounting tensions in Haiti, and the opposition found a renewed cause with Michel’s arrest.
As Michel waited to appear before a judge, a crowd stormed into the court house passed police, freed him from custody and took him to the office of the Port-au-Prince bar association for his own protection, said Newton St. Juste, his lawyer. Michel was later rescued by Exius and other opposition senators, who had called an emergency session of the Haitian Senate.
Attempts to reach Francisco René, the Port-au-Prince district attorney, were unsuccessful.
Michel had been in hiding for months after the government issued what critics and other lawyers call a questionable arrest warrant against him in the 2010 murder of a student. Earlier this month, he said he planned to come out of hiding. He appeared at a Sept. 30 anti-government protest in Port-au-Prince and then again last week led an anti-government protest in Cap-Haitien.
Michel was arrested while on his way home after he was stopped in a car in the Port-au-Prince slum of Martissant. He was detained by a special branch, CIMO, of the Haiti National Police. They were joined on the scene by René, who quickly left after police began dispersing tear gas to move the crowds protecting Michel.
Journalists on the scene and others reported burning tires and rock throwing. On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement warning U.S. citizens to stay clear of the area in and around Cite Soleil and the Champ de Mars, near the presidential palace. Protesters had begun to gather and were burning tires and throwing rocks.