Haiti's Fragile Democracy

JURIST Guest Columnist Lauren Carasik of Western New England University School of Law discusses what appears to be the politically motivated charges against former president Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti ...

The latest chapter in a long series of preliminary legal actions against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has generated a series of standoffs. Outside Aristide's house in the suburb of Tabarre, his supporters have gathered several times in the past weeks to protest announced efforts to arrest him and have usually been dispersed with tear gas by Haitian police and UN soldiers. Inside the Courthouse Judge Lamarre Belizaire insists that the police execute an arrest warrant he issued on August 14, while his chief judge issues contradictory statements about whether the effort to have him recused—now before Haiti's Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court)—affects the warrant's validity. In the court of public opinion, Aristide's lawyers—who have not been allowed any hearings or access to the case file—argue that the Judge Belizaire is an illegally-appointed judge following a deeply flawed process to harass an opponent of the government that named him.

Judge Lamarre Belizaire issued the August 14 arrest warrant after Aristide failed to appear to answer a summons issued the day before, on what Aristide's lawyers contend are politically-motivated, time-barred charges. Mario Joseph, head of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, claims the summons was never properly served and that Aristide never received it. The criminal investigation centers on allegations of corruption, criminal conspiracy, money laundering and misappropriation of funds during Aristide's presidency that ended with a US-backed coup more than a decade ago.

This is not the first time that Aristide has been the target of charges that are brought with public fanfare and then dropped before Aristide has an opportunity to challenge the allegations. Aristide's supporters claim the repeated legal actions are aimed at discrediting him and Fanmi Lavalas, the country's most popular political party, that he founded, and intended to undermine a free and fair electoral process in Haiti. 

Aristide's lawyers Mario Joseph and Ira Kurzban claim the charges are wholly fabricated and reflect Belizaire's bias. Belizaire, who was appointed by President Michel Martelly, has a history of using his judicial role to pursue Martelly's political enemies. This practice led the country's Bar Association to suspend him for ten years, starting when he steps down from the bench. Joseph and Kurzban echo the concerns of others who suggest that the meritless charges were manufactured to hinder elections scheduled that have been overdue since 2011, when Martelly became president. Joseph also believes the reports were calculated to distract the public from the jailbreak of over 300 prisoners, including Clifford Brandt—a member of one of Haiti's wealthiest families with ties to the government, who is suspected in a number of high profile kidnappings—from a maximum security facility outside of Port-au-Prince on August 10; he has since been recaptured. Others have suggested that sullying Aristide's reputation diverts attention from the prosecution of former dictator Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier for financial malfeasance and crimes against humanity. Aristide's lawyers have also filed a precautionary measures (injunctive relief) petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to protect Aristide from the abuse of state power.

Aristide, the country's first democratically-elected president, has maintained a low profile since returning to Haiti from forced exile in 2011, focusing on education and health care for the country's impoverished masses. Yet he symbolizes a popular grassroots mobilization that those with a tight grip on the reins of power appear to find threatening.  

Haiti has seen more than its share of hardship and deprivation. The 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and the cholera epidemic that followed on its heels continue to ravage the country, compounding endemic poverty and corruption. The 2011 election that brought Martelly into power was held less than a year after the catastrophic quake, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The voting process was widely contested: Martelly, who has ties to Duvalier, only triumphed after an unprecedented intervention by the Organization of American States (OAS) (more specifically, by the US, France and Canada) and with Fanmi Lavalas barred from participating, in an election that was widely boycotted by political parties and voters.

Legislative elections had been scheduled for October 26 of this year, but Haiti's electoral authority announced on August 11—two days before the Arsitide summons—that they will now need to be delayed yet again. Since the 2011 elections, the terms for elected local officials and one-third of senators' seats have already expired. The shortage of seated senators has paralyzed the legislative process since the open seats allow a small number of senators to defeat a quorum. Martelly has appointed "municipal agents" to fill the vacant mayoral seats.

Another third of the Senate seats and the 99-member House of Deputies will be vacant next year if elections are not held this fall. The process of implementing the constitutionally-mandated Permanent Electoral Council tasked with overseeing elections has been fraught with delays and controversy. Various civic groups point out that Martelly has benefitted from missteps in setting up the council. Without elections this year, Martelly will further consolidate his grip on power, and with only a third of the senate remaining, the legislative process would grind to a standstill.

The investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Aristide follows an all-too familiar pattern. The Haitian government first filed a civil suit against Aristide and several co-defendants in the US District Court of the Southern District of Florida in November 2005. The Haitian government, which had come into power following the 2004 coup, and the US government held a series of press conferences and briefings about the case, generating extensive media attention. Yet despite the apparent enthusiasm for, and investment in, the case, Haitian authorities never served the complaint on Aristide or any of the other defendants. Aristide was in South Africa at the time, complicating the process of serving him with the complaint, but other defendants were living openly in Florida. The Haitian government sought one extension to serve the defendants, but declined to seek another, eventually requesting that the case be dismissed just before the service deadline. This was more than six months after the initial filing and the Haitian government retained the right to re-file the complaint. After the enthusiastic media campaign to publicize the suit, critics questioned the government's motivation in bringing and then dismissing the case. Charges brought in Haiti against Aristide in 2005 on the same charges were dismissed in April 2006, after a judge found that the government failed to submit the case to the appropriate court.  

The current investigation is the third time the Haitian government has pursued a criminal complaint against Aristide in 20 months. Each time, the warrant was leaked to the press before being served on the former president. The first time, in January 2013, the charges were so patently unjustified that when Aristide's lawyers pushed back, the prosecutor dropped the case after trying to save face by canceling the formal hearing and conducting an informal interview at Aristide's house. The case backfired politically, as the informal interview was seen as an embarrassing capitulation. Aristide was targeted a second time for investigation, in May 2013, in the investigation of the April 2000 murder of journalist Jean-Dominique. Aristide was properly summoned, and attended the hearing, as 10,000 of his supporters protested outside. Lacking any merit to the allegations, the prosecutor let that case drop as well.

Mention of Aristide's imminent arrest engenders widespread media attention. Yet the press reports on these events uncritically: the stories neglect to mention the past initiatives that were summarily abandoned, give scant attention to the procedural irregularities that taint the charges and fail to contextualize the judge's documented history of partisan behavior. This is not a new tactic for the Haitian government. US State Department cables released by Wikileaks suggest that previous arrest warrants for Aristide were also politically motivated—and supported by top UN officials—aimed at dampening support for the deposed leader. International meddling in Haitian politics reinforces the entrenched power structure. A statistical analysis of the 2011 election by the Center for Economic and Policy Research demonstrated that the OAS intervention on behalf of Michel Martelly was unwarranted.

Given the Haitian government's pattern of charging Aristide when it is politically expedient to do so, the decade old allegations are likely to resurface even if the current investigation is not pursued. Until Haiti's government fosters the conditions for a free and fair democracy, the descendants of the first country to throw off the shackles of slavery will continue to face bleak conditions.


Lauren Carasik is a Clinical Professor of Law, and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England School of Law. She received her JD from Northeastern University School of Law. Prior to joining the faculty of Western New England School of Law, Professor Carasik opened a solo practice, concentrating in disability rights and mental health law.

Suggested Citation: Lauren Carasik, Haiti's Fragile Democracy, JURIST - Forum, August 31, 2014, http://jurist.org/forum/2014/08/lauren-carasik-haiti-democracy.php



This article was prepared for publication by Maria Coladonato, a Section Editor for JURIST's Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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