US Investigation into Haiti Assassination Is an Opportunity to Right Past Wrongs

July 13, 2023

The New York Times

See article on original site

In July 2021, a group of heavily armed men stormed the home of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti, killing him and wounding the first lady. There is still much we don’t know, but the US Department of Justice has said the plot to oust him was hatched in Florida. Eleven people, including several American citizens, have been charged in relation to the conspiracy, and more than 40 people are being held — uncharged — in deplorable conditions in Haiti in connection with the crime.

Legal proceedings against the suspects have been slowly progressing in a largely empty courtroom in South Florida. And while few people appear to be paying attention, the investigation — and even a flawed parallel effort taking place in Port-au-Prince — present an opportunity not just to address a long legacy of impunity and injustice in Haiti but also to reset US-Haiti relations, which have long been subject to political interference and interventionism.

But the investigations are moving slowly and, so far, raising only more questions. In Florida the case is taking place under tight confidentiality restrictions due to some of the suspects’ ties to American intelligence agencies. The Department of Justice has argued that releasing details from the proceedings may constitute a threat to national security. Last month the judge overseeing the case delayed the trial’s start date to May 2024.

In Haiti, the acting prime minister, Ariel Henry, has been implicated by Haitian authorities in the plot. In May, the government nominated a fifth judge to oversee the case, after others backed out or were replaced. Investigators have faced death threats, and many have fled the country. Any hopes for justice and accountability are fading and, with them, so too fades the hope for a new path forward for Haiti.

The Department of Justice has said that two of the conspiracy’s ringleaders were residents of Florida and owners of a local security company. In a little-noticed court filing this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation acknowledged that one of them was an active bureau informant. It admitted that its agents met with the two suspects in April 2021 — three months before Moïse’s assassination — and that they “attempted to draw FBI personnel into a discussion about regime change in Haiti.” Two other people in custody in Florida are former Drug Enforcement Administration informants.

Many of those implicated have claimed they believed they were operating with the support of the US government. True or not, there is more than a century of reasons to explain how so many could be convinced of that.

Even today, as Haiti descends further into crisis, Washington is attempting to put a thumb on Haiti’s political scales.

In the capital, kidnappings have become commonplace, and armed groups are inflicting terror, especially on marginalized communities. Nearly half the population is facing severe food insecurity. Paradoxically, as the state crumbles, political power has been consolidated under the auspices of Mr. Henry, whom the United States has stood firmly behind ever since backing him in a post-assassination power struggle.

Haiti’s political paralysis and spiraling violence did not begin with the assassination of the president; in many ways, it was decades in the making.

The Biden administration has pledged a new era of relations with Haiti, one in which we no longer pick political winners and losers. But its actions since the assassination belie the rhetoric.

Just last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Mr. Henry, highlighting $100 million in assistance provided to Haiti’s national police and reiterating Washington’s support for a foreign military intervention that the embattled prime minister had requested, though many in Haiti see the request primarily as a way to prolong his rule.

The justification from US officials — and others in the international community — for their support of Mr. Henry is that he was appointed to the position by Mr. Moïse before his death. Though Mr. Henry had yet to take office, “this gives him a certain legitimacy,” the head of the United Nations political mission in Haiti said last month. Now their struggle has been to bolster that legitimacy in Haiti.

Many Haitians don’t see Mr. Henry as legitimate at all. He is deeply unpopular, and the political opposition has been pushing for him to enter into a power-sharing agreement. In early June he met with members of the opposition and civil society groups in Kingston, Jamaica. But after three days of meetings, it was abundantly clear that he has no intention of sharing power. With the support of the United States and the U.N., what incentive does he have to negotiate?

But perhaps a better question is: What does he have to lose if he finds himself on the wrong side of the inevitable transition to come?

Mr. Henry has close links to a prime suspect in the assassination. Power means impunity.

Mr. Moïse appointed Mr. Henry two days before his death. By then, the president had received an explicit warning from someone involved in the plot that he was in danger.

On the night of the assassination, Mr. Henry received two phone calls from a former Justice Ministry official, Joseph Felix Badio, who Haitian police say played a crucial role in the plot. According to police investigators, Mr. Badio and Mr. Henry met at least twice in the months after the assassination, when Mr. Badio was a wanted fugitive.

The former chief prosecutor overseeing the assassination case in Haiti called Mr. Henry to testify. He refused and then called the justice minister and told him to fire the prosecutor. When the minister refused, Mr. Henry fired both.

Since then, an audio recording of the judge overseeing the case was leaked to CNN. “Ariel is a prime suspect of Jovenel Moïse’s assassination, and he knows it,” the judge can be heard saying. “Do you think I can touch Ariel now?”

There is still time for Washington to change course. As a group of Haitian civil society organizations argued last month, it is long past time the United States stopped propping up unpopular political leaders, especially those implicated in unsolved murders.

The Biden administration should view the investigation into Mr. Moïse’s murder not as a threat to national security but as an opportunity. To start, the United States should lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the case; pursue every lead, no matter where it takes investigators; and stand as an example of what justice and accountability truly mean.

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