They stole and they freed criminals. Now these Haiti judges are being singled out

In a historic blow to Haiti’s already dysfunctional judicial system, a judicial oversight board has rebuked more than two dozen judges for misconduct and paved the way for their firing — a clean-up of the nation’s judiciary that will likely affect its handling of pressing legal matters, from corruption to gang violence to drug trafficking.

The Superior Council of the Judiciary informed the justice minister of 30 judges whose certification won’t be renewed for offenses that range from drunkenness and property theft to a lack of moral integrity and academic qualifications to abuse of authority and facilitating the release of notorious criminals.

The exposure of the corruption in Haiti’s judiciary comes just five months after the government’s anti-corruption unit issued a report detailing corruption in government institutions and agencies. That report concluded that Haiti’s public administration is a cesspool of corruption in which the actions of civil servants and elected officials go unchecked and they do as they like without concerns about the consequences.

From the judicial oversight body’s list, the judiciary seems to be no better off.

Among the judges reprimanded by the council are two investigative judges involved in two of Haiti’s most high profile investigations: the inquiry into nearly $2 billion in missing aid from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil program, and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Based on complaints, the council decided not to certify Ramoncite Accimé, who was charged with getting to the bottom of the PetroCaribe corruption scandal and later was accused of building a $500,000 house on a salary of less than $400 a month. The council also disciplined Garry Orélien, who was appointed to look into the Moïse’s July 7, 2021, assassination and was later accused of corruption while carrying out the inquiry.

Also singled out: Jacques Lafontant, the chief government prosecutor in Haiti’s largest jurisdiction, Port-au-Prince, and a judge in the Court of First Instance. In a radio interview on Monday, Lafontant said he won’t resigne despite being publicly denounced for a lack of moral integrity. Another notable judge who has been publicly denounced is Ikenson Edumé, the president of the National Network of Haitian Judges, RENAMAH.

Edumé is the brother of Josue Pierre-Louis, the current secretary general of the National Palace. Edumé was the object of corruption complaints about properties he owned that did not correspond to his salary.

“Firing them would be too easy. When you commit a crime, you need to pay for it,” said Marie Yolène Gilles, a human rights activist who closely monitors judicial and police misconduct. “There are so many people who have been victimized by these corrupt judges; there are people who lost their houses, their land; there are people who were illegally jailed.”

Gilles, who runs Fondasyon Je Klere or Eyes Wide Open Foundation, is demanding that charges be brought against the judges. Her organization led the investigation into Accimé. On Tuesday, her organization demanded that the new dean of the courts, Chavannes Etienne, designate a new investigative judge to carry out the inquiry into the PetroCaribe corruption allegations.

“This country is so rampant with corruption that if there isn’t an example that is made, then it’s everyday we will be saying ‘the justice system isn’t any good,’” Gilles said. “Today we have an opportunity for us to get rid of a number of judges who are corrupt.”

Haiti’s justice system has long been crumbling, with those detained spending more than a decade in jail without a hearing. Such illegal and arbitrary preventive detentions have been increasing in recent years, say activists and lawyers who cite delayed judicial appointments, protests by clerks seeking higher salaries and gang violence for the poor functioning of the courts.

Things were so bad that in December of 2020 the head of a judges’ association went on radio and warned Haitians: “Don’t let them arrest you, because you don’t know when you will be released from prison.” In June, things got even worse when a notorious gang took control of the main courthouse in Port-au-Prince.

Still, that is not an excuse for corruption among judges, observers say.

The decision not to certify the judges came out of a vetting process, and many of the named judges were already the subject of complaints. In at least one case the judge continued to work despite having been previously reprimanded.

Moïse himself, shortly after assuming office in 2017, spoke of naming 50 “corrupt judges” to the bench. During a visit to France, the then-president claimed he was forced to appoint the judges under pressure. At the time of his comment, Moïse was on a presidential visit to France and was speaking about the failure of the certification and vetting process in Haiti’s judicial system.

The president’s statement at the time was heavily criticized by a number of people who accused him of jeopardizing the independence of the judiciary, and looking for an excuse for his appointments when he was the guarantor of the proper functioning of the country’s institutions.

Among the president’s critics at the time was then-Supreme Court Justice Windelle Coq Thélot, who today is a suspect in Moïse’s assassination and remains on the run. She accused Moïse of violating the constitution and of being “incompetent.”

“In due time, the president will have to answer the questions of justice, because he has violated the Constitution,” Coq Thélot, then vice-president of the Supreme Court, said. .

While the judicial oversight board, which is currently enjoying more autonomy, can reprimand and discipline judges, it cannot fire them. That job belongs to the government, which will now have to decide what it will do with the 30 judges.

“Ariel has an important role to play in freeing the system of these corrupt judges,” Gilles said of interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry. “We believe it’s time to clean up the system. We need to see if there is a real political will.”

This isn’t the first time that judges’ have had their right to practice revoked. But it is the first time, observers say, so many judges have been cited for removal at the same time.

In all, the judicial oversight body was asked to review the files of 69 judges who work in courtrooms throughout the country. It found that 31 of the judges passed vetting. The team is still reviewing eight others judges’ certification.

In a statement, Gilles’ group said the 31 judges who passed the vetting should not see it as “an achievement, but an additional requirement of morality.”

“The country has the right to expect from these magistrates a higher degree of morality than that required of ordinary citizens,” Fondayson Je Klere said.


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