Haiti’s leading human rights attorney Mario Joseph has been the subject of death threats and police surveillance and harassment in the past several months, along with other lawyers. As the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) reports, Joseph, IJDH Managing Attorney and the director of its Haitian affiliate Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) has received as many as 3-4 death threats a day, while police in vehicles with tinted windows have monitored the BAI office in Port-au-Prince and harassed and searched people leaving. Threats against BAI and Mario have also been spray painted on walls nearby. While IJDH notes that Joseph has been the targets of threats in the past, it says “the current intimidation appears more organized, more persistent and more closely linked to the Haitian government than previous incidents.”
U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D – MI), the Ranking Member on the House Judiciary Committee, condemned the threats this week, saying:
“As a long-time supporter of Haiti in the United States Congress, I am concerned by recent reports that suggest that Haitian attorneys and human rights advocates, including prominent attorney Mario Joesph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), are being targeted with political intimidation and threats of physical harm as a result of their legal representation of politically vulnerable individuals and groups," said Conyers.
"The ability of an attorney to provide legal assistance free of harassment to any client is a critically important component of a well-functioning justice system. All necessary steps should be taken to protect these attorneys and advocates, who help ensure that all Haitians have equitable access to justice and due process. My office has contacted the State Department to express my concern about these recent reports."
As the Miami Herald reported earlier this month, Joseph and other lawyers may be the targets of political persecution by the Martelly government. Chief Prosecutor of Port-au-Prince Jean Renel Sénatus claims Haiti's Justice Minister Jean Renel Sanon fired him after he refused to issue an arrest warrant for Joseph and 35 other “political opponents.” The Herald also reported that
Senatus also said that Josue Pierre-Louis, a presidential legal advisor and head of the six-member electoral council, asked him to serve warrants against two attorneys — Newton St. Juste and Andre Michel — who have brought corruption complaints against the presidential family and members of Haiti’s government.
Sanon, Sénatus claims, said the arrest warrants “would make the President very happy.” The reported arrest warrants followed Joseph’s summoning by Investigating Judge Jean Wilner Morin of the Port-au-Prince Trial Court in September to appear for questioning in what appears to have been another effort at harassment and intimidation.
Amnesty International issued an October 4 alert about the attorneys
Urging authorities to immediately and independently investigate the accusation of threats and intimidation towards the lawyers – ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice – and providing effective protection to the lawyers according to their wishes;
Asking the Haitian authorities to clarify why the arrest of the 36 political opponents is being sought and insist that any accusation must be carried out under internationally recognizable criminal offences;
Asking authorities to ensure that anyone charged is given a fair trial in compliance with international standards.
The National Lawyers Guild and a number of other organizations have also condemned the threats and intimidation against Joseph and the other attorneys.
Joseph and BAI have taken on a number of politically sensitive cases, including efforts to prosecute former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier – whom the Martelly administration has been reluctant to pursue, the defense of government critics, and of course the claim against the United Nations on behalf of thousands of cholera victims. Joseph has also helped impede the forced evictions of internally displaced persons from camps, and has pursued rape and gender based violence (GBV) cases on behalf of women and children living in the camps, among other cases.
Joseph said in an interview this week with the Pacifica Evening News that the threats and intimidation began after a judge dismissed political violence charges against Duvalier in January 2012, and intensified soon after Joseph filed a request for an investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) into what he termed “the deterioration and contempt for human rights in Haiti” under the Martelly government. IJDH also recently released a report on the Martelly administration’s intimidation and “stonewalling” of the media, one of the concerns Joseph highlighted in his appeal to the IACHR.
It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s importance in confronting the powerful and the work that he, BAI and IJDH have done to bring rule of law and justice to Haiti. Joseph and IJDH Director Brian Concannon were responsible for the convictions of 53 soldiers and death squad members in Haiti’s landmark Raboteau Massacre trial. Martelly provoked outrage early in his term when he nominated Bernard Gousse to be Prime Minister, since Gousse had shown sympathy for Louis Jodel Chamblain, Jean Tatoune, and others convicted for their crimes in the massacre and had previously served as Justice Minister during the unelected interim regime following the 2004 coup d’etat, in which Haiti experienced some of the worst political violence in the hemisphere.