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.
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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.
Marie Yolene Gilles, assistant program director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, denounced the arrest on local Haiti radio. She called it a “banditry” by the state.
St. Juste also said that Michel’s arrest was a sign that Haiti had entered into an era of dictatorship under Martelly.
“If we have to die, we have no problem with this,” he said. “We will not back down.”
The protests in Haiti also erupted on the same day that a journalist watchdog group called on Haiti’s Justice Ministry to investigate allegations that unidentified persons recently tried to kill one of the country’s most well-known and vocal radio journalists, Jean Monard Métellus.
French-based Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Wednesday saying that it is “deeply concerned” about allegations that there is an assassination plot against Métellus, host of the Haiti’s top-rated political radio talk show, Ranmase.
Métellus said that the lug nuts on his car’s tires were loosened in an attempt to have him killed. The vehicle, he said, was sabotage while he was hosting his weekly Saturday talk show.
Haiti’s Justice Minister Jean Renel Sanon issued a statement on Oct. 19 saying that his ministry had reliable information that a contract had been had been taken out on Métellus, who was supposed to be killed by two motorcycle hit men for $10,000. The note did not say if anyone was in custody but Sanon promised state protection for Métellus.
“This protection needs to materialize quickly, just as a rapid investigation into the origin of the threats is also needed,” Reporters Without Border said.
But the watchdog organization, echoing concerns of other Haiti-based journalist organizations, warned Haitian authorities not to manipulate the case as part of the ongoing “in-fighting between different government factions.’’
“We are aware of certain allegations in connection with the supposed plot to murder Métellus and we think they should not be made lightly. The priority should be Métellus’ protection and the subsequent investigation,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Métellus’ case is the latest in a string of incidents involving the treatment of journalists in Haiti.
Last month video footage of a member of Martelly’s presidential guard hitting a radio journalist attempting to ask the president a question went viral. The radio station has filed a complaint.
Earlier this month Rony Colin, chief executive of Zenith Radio TV, announced that one of his reporters, Wendy Phele, had sought refuge in France because of continued threats against his life. A former mayor has been accused of hiding and protecting a member of his security detail who shot and seriously injured Phele in the Central Haiti town of Thomonde in April 2011.