Strikes, violence overwhelm Haiti’s crumbling judiciary

January 28, 2021
Alleged gang leader Arnel Joseph is taken back in handcuffs to the National Penitentiary after being brought before a judge for the first time since his July 2019 arrest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A warning from a well-known judge in Haiti crackled recently over the radio: “Don’t let them arrest you, because you don’t know when you will be released from prison.”

Haiti’s justice system has long been dysfunctional.

But in recent years delayed judicial appointments, a spike in violence and protests by judges and court clerks demanding higher salaries and better working conditions have overwhelmed a system in which some 80% of inmates are being held with no trial amid a rise in what activists say are illegal and arbitrary preventive detentions.

“These conditions are so unacceptable that they constitute a violation of the prohibition of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti said in a statement this week.

Overall, some 11,000 inmates are being held in prisons across Haiti, including the National Penitentiary in the capital of Port-au-Prince, which was built for 800 prisoners but holds an estimated 3,800.

“The system is on its knees,” said Marie-Yolène Gilles, executive director of the human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere. “It has been crippled for a year now.”

Those concerns were echoed by Judge Jean Wilner Morin last month during a radio news program in which he warned that people should avoid being arrested as he talked about Haiti’s problems, including the troubles in the justice system.

On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen people stood outside the National Penitentiary, colorful plastic bags lying at their feet holding food for their loved ones inside.

Haiti is among the top 10 countries in the world most affected by prolonged pretrial detention, with people often imprisoned for more than a decade as they await a judicial hearing, according to the U.N.

Activists expect the situation to worsen, given the increase in violence and protests and a decree that President Jovenel Moïse recently approved that classifies certain crimes as terrorism, including robbery, arson and blocking public roads, common events during protests.

Proposed solutions have ranged from freeing inmates held beyond the time prescribed by law to increasing the justice system’s limited budget. Jean-François, the lawyer, said more money for judges would translate into less corruption and fewer strikes.

In mid-January, the U.N. met with USAID and Haitian authorities to relaunch certain initiatives and agree on ways to reboot the judicial system and limit the number of people taken into custody.

In its statement, the U.N. noted that similar efforts previously ended in “resounding failures.”

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