The fallout from the suspicious death of Judge Jean Serge Joseph on July 13 has created a political firestorm for Haitian President Michel Martelly – the likes of which he has not seen during his tumultuous administration. Up until his untimely death, Judge Joseph had been conducting a high profile investigation against Michel Martelly’s wife Sophia and their son Olivier, who are currently accused of corruption, money laundering, abuse of authority and squandering funds from the public treasury.
On July 2, Judge Joseph instructed President Martelly to order Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and other high profile figures in the Haitian government to testify in the corruption investigation against President Michel Martelly’s wife and son. No doubt Judge Jean’s brave effort to seek justice and get to the bottom of the case rubbed many powerful people the wrong way, and it was not long before he was receiving pressure from President Martelly to drop the charges, in addition to recieivng numerous death threats.
On July 11, Judge Joseph was called to a meeting at the law office of Louis Garry Lissade – one of Martelly’s legal advisors. At the meeting Judge Joseph was pressured to drop the charges, but once again refused to back down, and two days later he passed away. The official cause of death remains unclear, as a rare form of stroke (Intraparenchymal hemorrhage) and poisoning have been cited thus far. Judge Joseph’s body underwent an autopsy in Montreal (as he was a Canadian citizen), however the results may not be known until November.
In response to the suspicious timing of Judge Joseph’s death, a special Senate Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate whether or not Martelly and other government figures played a role in intimidating the judge. The special commission was made up of five members of the Haitian Senate (Pierre Francky Exius, Westner Polycarpe, François Anick Joseph, Steven Irvenson Benoit, and John Joel Joseph) – who released their findings on August 8.
According to Haiti Liberté, the Senators asked the Haitian Deputies to “recognize the interference of the Head of State, the Prime Minister, and the Justice Minister in the sovereign exercise of judicial power so as to obtain court decisions in their favor,” to take note of the “perjurious nature of the executive authorities who have denied their participation in the meeting of Jul. 11, 2013 while the investigation confirms their participation in that meeting,” to “recognize the betrayal of the Head of State who had sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of the Republic,” and finally “to charge the Head of State with the crime of high treason.”
Furthermore, in a letter dated August 9th to the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Mr. Jose de Jesus Orozca Henriquez, the Bureaux des Advocats Internationaux (BAI) reiterated their demand that the IACHR investigate the very serious and ongoing human rights violations, stating that “the judge’s death is a scandal and, in the eyes of the people, of men of law and of all of those who remain vigilant around the current regime, this amounts to an execution, an elimination and an assassination to quell the voice of justice.”
The letter went on to assert that “Haiti today is experiencing a political regime willing to do anything to eliminate Haitians’ constitutional rights to liberty and to freely express their demands and aspirations. The government is systematically denying the democracy to which the Haitian people aspire. All citizens are thus under threat. Dictatorship is taking root and settling in full force in Haiti.”
It is important to note that this is not the first time that the Martelly administration has intimidated members of the judicial system and legal community in an attempt to weaken judicial power. Mario Joseph, André Michel and Newton St. Juste, the three lawyers responsible for filing the corruption charges against Martelly’s son and wife, have all received repeated death threats. In 2012, Minister of Justice Jean Renel Sanon had ordered the arrest of Mario Joseph along with several other attorneys and the closing of the BAI. This led the IACHR to adopt precautionary measures to “guarantee the life and physical integrity of Mr. Mario Joseph.”
In order to move forward with the recommendations put forward by the special Senate Commission, 16 out of the 20 Senators must ratify the report. This step may prove to be very challenging, as the intimidation of Judge Joseph and other members in the legal community highlights the lengths that President Martelly will go to control the Haitian judiciary system and undermine the Haitian Constitution.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.