Feds to assist Haitian law enforcement in Moïse assassination probe

Photo: Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for Concordia Summit

The Department of Justice and its government partners will be joining investigative efforts into the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, department spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement Monday.

“At the request of the Haitian government, the Department of Justice, along with its U.S. government partners, is assisting the Haitian National Police in the investigation of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse,” Coley said. “An initial assessment has been conducted in Haiti by senior U.S. officials. The department will continue to support the Haitian government in its review of the facts and circumstances surrounding this heinous attack.”

Coley added that the department will be investigating whether there were any violations of US criminal law in connection with the assassination.

On July 7th, Moïse was killed by a group of gunmen who descended on his private residence. He was shot 16 times, while his wife, who was also shot in the attack, was transported to intensive care at a hospital in Miami.

Officials say a group of 28 people are suspects in the killing. Eighteen of the suspects have been detained, at least three have been killed, and five haven’t yet been found by police.

“They are dangerous individuals,” Léon Charles, the head of Haiti’s police, said. “I’m talking commando, specialized commando.”

On Sunday night, authorities identified one of the Haitian suspects as 60-year-old Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a doctor living in Florida. Police say Sanon had political motives in the assassination and accused him of conspiring with a Venezuelan security firm to recruit mercenaries. After Moïse was killed, police say, Sanon was one of the first people an alleged assassin called on the phone.

When authorities raided Sanon’s house, they found dozens of boxes of 12 and 9mm ammunition, gun holsters, 24 shooting targets, four Dominican Republic license plates, and a hat labeled “DEA.”

Haitian police are currently working in tandem with Colombian intelligence officials to uncover how the mercenaries got to Haiti, who they worked with, and who financed the assassination mission.

Moïse’s assassination has aggravated an already-tense climate in a country marred by violence, poverty, and political turmoil affecting its 11 million citizens. Days before his death, the late president named neurosurgeon Ariel Henry as his new prime minister, leaving Henry and Acting PM Joseph jockeying for the position. According to Reuters, Senate Leader Joseph Lambert was nominated by lawmakers on Friday to serve as interim president.

The 53-year-old Moïse, who assumed office in 2017, had been a divisive figure in Haiti’s political sphere. As a member of the Center-Right Haitian Tèt Kale Party, Moïse proposed an overhaul of the Haitian constitution that would serve to bolster the executive branch, a similar strategy to that of Donald Trump, that he claimed would usher in a significant change to the country.

Moïse’s detractors, however, had other thoughts. In 2018, when protests began following increased fuel prices. A senate probe investigating a time period between 2008 and 2016 found that Haiti owes Venezuela billions of dollars, much of it embezzled through an oil alliance program by several administrations.

“The investment projects and contracts related to the PetroCaribe fund were not managed in accordance with the principles of efficiency and economy,” Haiti’s High Court of Auditors said in a report. The PetroCaribe program, founded by Hugo Chavez, allows several Latin American and Caribbean countries to receive oil on loan from Venezuela.

Protesters sought to stifle the misused loans and rising fuel prices, as well as general corruption in Haiti. Opposition leaders ultimately wanted to ensure the resignation of Moïse and the installation of a transitional government.

On February 12, protesters targeted wealthy Haitians’ vehicles, burned and looted stores, and broke inmates out of a prison on the Tiburon Peninsula’s south coast, freeing all of its inmates.

Two days later, Moïse denounced the efforts, promising he wouldn’t “give up the country to armed gangs and drug traffickers.”

As protests escalated in June, journalist Rospide Petion was fatally shot as he drove home from a radio appearance where he criticized the government on air. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that some reporters were targeted by protesters, including one from Reuters who was injured as he was caught in between clashing groups.

A freelancer, Vladjimir Legagneur, is presumed dead after he never returned home on March 14, 2018, after leaving to report on gang activity in Grande Ravine. Another radio journalist who had spoken out against the government, Néhémie Joseph, was found dead after he complained of death threats.

While opposing leaders and protesters continued to press Moïse to resign, the president called for them to demonstrate peacefully.

“The country’s problems aren’t solely political. The country’s problems are social, economic, and political,” he said.

According to Haiti’s police force, “malicious individuals” had overtaken otherwise peaceful protests within the country to enact their own violent ideologies, similar to some occurrences in the United States surrounding the death of George Floyd.

According to the UN’s Human Rights office, criminal activity including kidnappings, gang wars, and insecurity have risen in 2021 with “almost total” impunity. A report by the office found that relatively peaceful protests had grown violent over time, and had risen to include “violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.”

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Spokesperson Marta Hurtado said.

A total of 187 protesters have died in the unrest since July of 2018, as well as 44 police officers and at least 2 journalists. Hurtado has called on authorities in Haiti to “take immediate action” by requiring law enforcement officials to abide by international use-of-force standards, and ensure gangs don’t interfere with demonstrations of peace.

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfillment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Hurtado said.

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