As protests erupt over his arrest, Guy Philippe pleads not guilty in Miami

Supporters of Haitian Senator-elect Guy Philippe, charged with drug trafficking by U.S. prosecutors, hold up Haiti's flag outside the federal courthouse in Miami on Friday, January 13, 2017.
Supporters of Haitian Senator-elect Guy Philippe, charged with drug trafficking by U.S. prosecutors, hold up Haiti's flag outside the federal courthouse in Miami on Friday, January 13, 2017. The Miami Herald

With dozens of T-shirt clad supporters and his wife looking on, former Haiti rebel leader and Senator-elect Guy Philippe pleaded not guilty Friday to drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges in a Miami federal courtroom.

Philippe’s plea came as his recent arrest by the Haiti National Police continued to spark nationalist sentiments in Haiti and abroad, and his supporters demanded answers about how he could have been turned over so quickly to U.S. federal agents for prosecution in the United States.

Philippe’s lawyers and supporters say there was no legal procedure followed, and he was essentially taken from Haiti without any formal process. The Haiti National Police, they said, voluntarily turned him over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which brought him to Miami on Jan. 5.

“This may conflict with international law,” said Zeljka Bozanic, one of Philippe’s attorneys, who was joined by Philippe’s wife, Natalie. “I don’t think the proper legal protocol was followed.”

Natalie Philippe declined to comment about her husband’s drug-trafficking charges, which accuse the former Haiti National Police commander of providing protection for Colombian cocaine smuggling into the United States. If convicted, Philippe faces up to life in prison.

Former Haiti coup leader Guy Philippe, who has been wanted for more than a decade on drug charges in the United States, was arrested Thursday in Haiti and escorted to Miami by U.S. federal agents.

So far, neither the United States nor the Haitian government has been willing to say exactly what legal procedure was used to turn Philippe over to the DEA. He was one of the agency’s most wanted men. He evaded authorities for more than a decade until his surprise arrest outside of a Petionville radio station, days before he was to be sworn in as a senator.

“Should he not be judged by his own country? That is a kidnapping,” Fanfan Jean-Francois, 40, a relative of Philippe’s, said about his removal to the United States. “What they did is very disrespectful to every single Haitian. They don’t treat Haiti like a sovereign country.”

Wearing a T-shirt that read, “Free Guy Philippe” and “A Senator for the People” in English and Haitian-Creole, Jean-Francois, who drove from Naples, was among dozens of individuals who were forced to wait outside the packed courtroom during the five-minute hearing because no seats were available.

Early Friday, about 250 of Philippe’s supporters protested outside the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. The day before, hundreds took to the streets in the Grand’ Anse region of Haiti, Philippe’s southern stronghold where he was recently elected to a six-year senate seat.

In Jérémie, the region’s capital, protesters carried tree branches and posters of Philippe. Later, in the rural villages of Beaumont and Pestel, the seaside community where Philippe lived, they carried lit candles.

William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said he isn’t surprised by the protests in favor of Philippe, who led the 2004 armed revolt against then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“Never have I seen such an operation conducted in which the individual and his supporters did not protest, scream and generate every conceivable push back that they possibly could,” Brownfield said. “This was a professionally done law enforcement operation. It was well planned, it was well conceived. They had worked through the details in advance and it was well executed.”

Still, questions linger among Haitians over how Philippe, 48, ended up in the United States just hours after his arrest. The move has caused even Philippe’s political opponents to take to the radio in his defense, denouncing the removal of a Haitian citizen.

“People don’t like how it was done,” said Monferrier Dorval, a Haitian constitutional law expert. “It’s totally illegal.”

Dorval said neither a 1904 treaty nor 1997 drug trafficking agreement with the United States stipulates that a Haitian citizen can be extradited. Haiti’s constitution and law, he said, doesn’t allow for the extradition of a Haitian citizen.

Yet despite that law, about two dozen Haitian police officers and commanders, and politicians, have been arrested and removed from Haiti for prosecution on drug charges in Miami over the past two decades.

The U.S. Attorney’s office did not respond to questions. The Justice Department directed questions to the Haitian government. Haiti’s Justice Minister Camille Edouard Jr. did not respond.

The only responses have come from the State Department, where an official there indicated there are other ways besides extradition to handle removals but didn’t specify what was used in this particular instance.

“It is common practice internationally for countries to cooperate with other[s] to ensure that criminal fugitives face justice,” a department spokesperson said. “This can be accomplished through a variety of domestic and international legal frameworks. Formal extradition is by no means the exclusive means for such cooperation.”