It has become so dangerous for lawyers in Port-au-Prince to go to the court of first instance… that they don’t go there anymore! No hearing has been held there for months, an illustration of justice in Haiti being defeated by gangs.
“For the month of February, we had seven kidnappings at the bar and one attacked by bullets”, tells AFP Me Marie Suzy Legros, president of the bar of the Haitian capital.
With several dozen other brothers and sisters in dress, the lawyer reached on Friday outside the official residence of the Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, to denounce the insecurity they face.
Relocating the Port-au-Prince courthouse is one of the protesters’ first demands.
The very few are still legal professionals who risk going down to this courtyard: the establishment directly faces slums which serve as headquarters for the most powerful gangs in the country.
Long confined to these very disadvantaged areas of the Port-au-Prince seaside, armed gangs have greatly increased their hold across the city and the country, multiplying murders and villainous kidnappings.
Hence the exasperation of Haitian lawyers, aggravated by the inertia of a judicial system deprived of the means to function.
– Court beset by gangs –
Faced with the request to relocate the court, the government authorities had announced the establishment, by the police, of a security corridor ensuring access to the establishment.
Or “it is in this corridor that the lawyers are attacked”, deplores Me Legros.
“Sometimes, gang members return (to court): they look for their collaborators or brothers, depending on what they call them, to make them escape”, soberly testifies the lawyer.
Such a blockage of the judiciary only worsens Haitian prison overcrowding, already among the highest in the world.
The country’s prisons only have the capacity to accommodate 3,000 detainees but, according to the prison administration, more than 11,200 people are currently incarcerated there, more than 82% of whom are still awaiting trial, some for several years.
In the prison center of Port-au-Prince, we call the penitentiary and where the sanitary conditions are deplorable, the occupancy rate exceeds 460%.
– Low wages and corruption –
At the national level, justice will experience a new setback with the start of an indefinite strike by clerks on Tuesday.
“Our working conditions are precarious in Haiti. There is no equipment, no computers: in some courts, there is not even a sheet of paper,” denounces Ainé Martin, president of the national association of Haitian court clerks.
“A clerk earns about $220 a month, and at the level of the courts of peace (first level of the judicial chain), it’s $150: you don’t live on such a meager salary and that’s why there are this corruption which plagues the Haitian judicial system”, deplores Mr. Martin.
Not to mention the dilapidated premises.
“With the sewers which are not cleaned, when it rains, the water loaded with garbage enters the court. On several occasions, the offices of the bar have taken on water and there are files which we cannot recover”, notes with spite the president of Port-au-Prince.
The capital’s courthouse collapsed during the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. In an emergency, the various courts had been temporarily relocated but only the court of first instance has not yet been relocated.
“We have already laid the first stone of the new courthouse in 2016 but since then, nothing”, regrets Me Legros.
“Without a court, the feeling of impunity grows and without justice, there is no country”, concludes the lawyer.
She knows only too well the reality of the slowness of public affairs and justice in Haiti: she took the head of the bar of Port-au-Prince after the assassination of her predecessor Me Monferrier Dorval, shot dead in front of his home. him in August 2020.
The investigation into the famous lawyer’s murder has not yet led to any arrests.
Even the emblematic case of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, shot dead in his home on July 7, 2021, is on hold: in March, a fourth judge was in charge of the investigation but, after a month, this one complained that he did not yet have either the file or the means to work.