Indicted head of Haitian kidnapping ring freed

A Port-au-Prince restaurateur and accused kidnapper with close ties to the presidential family has been freed from a Haitian prison a month after he and 13 others were indicted on various crimes — including murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and running a kidnapping ring.

Woodly Ethéart, aka Sonson Lafamilia, was freed late Friday after a trial that lasted about two hours, said the head of Haiti’s leading human rights group. Lamarre Bélizaire, a controversial investigative judge who has been accused in the past of doing the government’s bidding, threw out the indictment and freed Ethéart and Renel Nelfort.

Both men were described in a 30-page charging document as being the “intellectual authors” of Gang Galil, a notorious ring that kidnapped 17 people, including businessmen, for ransom between 2008 and 2014. According to the document, the gang collected nearly $1.5 million in ransom that was used to buy arms and ammunition, buildings and vehicles. Ethéart, who worked at the Ministry of Interior and operated the French restaurant, La Souvenance, maintained that he was innocent.

“The power wanted to free him, and they used the cover of the judiciary to free him,” said Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network. “It’s a huge hit for justice and against the work of the judiciary in this case.”

Government critics say that in addition to being a setback in the fight against organized crime and the country’s dysfunctional justice system, Bélizaire’s decision is an embarrassment for the Haitian government. In a country where more than 70 percent of prisoners are in pretrial detention, it was one of Haiti’s fastest trials.

Ethéart has been in jail since May, accused of kidnapping Haitian businessman Sami El Azzi.

Last month, Investigative Judge Sonel Jean-Francois filed the charging document, saying that Ethéart should not only stand trial for El Azzi’s kidnapping, but also, along with Nelfort, was the mastermind behind the kidnapping ring. Among the gang’s crimes, according to the document obtained by the Miami Herald: the November 2012 assassination of Haitian National Police Division Inspector Yves Michel Bellefleur. Bellefleur was gunned down while dropping his kids off at school.

The government prosecutor in the case disagreed with Jean-Francois’ ruling, and six of the accused appealed. Ethéart wasn’t among them. Instead of the appellate court issuing a ruling, the case was sent to Bélizaire.

“The judge was supposed to wait for the appeal,” Esperance said.

Reached by telephone, Belizaire hung up and did not respond to other calls. Haiti Justice Minister Pierre-Richard Casimir told the Miami Herald that he learned of the decision like everyone else and “is reflecting.”