In Haiti, a car theft exposes an unequal justice system

People kneel outside the Justice Ministry to demand the resignation of then Acting Justice Minister Liszt Quitel and protest kidnappings, during a strike in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Worker unions along with residents called for a general strike to demand the end of kidnappings, violence and insecurity in the streets.

AP

The two armed men were on a mission. It was either to steal Widlore Mérancourt’s gray Suzuki Vitara, to kidnap him or to do both. As they drove him around Haiti’s capital with a gun lodged into his side, they menaced him with questions: Who does the car belong to? Who’s name is on the registration? What do you do for a living?

In between assessing whether Mérancourt would be worth their trouble, one of the attackers turned to him and said, “We’re going to kill you.”

Mérancourt, a journalist who runs the Haiti news site AyiboPost and freelances for the Washington Post, did not die that frightful day in October of last year. But his 2019 SUV was stolen after his attackers ordered him to get out before taking off.

Like any good citizen, he filed a police report, notified the Haitian government agency charged with recovering stolen vehicles and alerted the motor vehicles’ office in case the thieves attempted to get a new registration.

When he spotted the vehicle this September while out in Port-au-Prince, he hopped on a motorcycle, and flagged down the closest police officers. He thought he was doing the right thing.

Now, that right thing has possibly put his life in danger after a soldier in Haiti’s reconstituted army was found driving the stolen vehicle and later freed while a police investigation into a possible stolen car ring was ongoing and despite the soldier being found in possession of a new license plate and a fake car registration on the vehicle and an illegal firearm.

In a troubled and corrupt justice system where the majority of the incarcerated are subjected to indefinite detention without a trial or charges, the handling of army soldier Serjo Massillon’s case stands in sharp contrast to how most Haitians are treated and has raised suspicions of influence peddling given his stature. Police are also accusing the justice system of undermining their efforts to tackle Haiti’s raging insecurity.

At issue isn’t just that Massillon benefited from an unusual speedy decision over his incarceration a month after his arrest, but that his release came while police, at the request of a district attorney, were carrying out their investigation in order for charges to eventually be filed.

It is one more example, advocates say, of the insecurity challenges plaguing Haiti. Despite the country struggling with an unprecedented surge in kidnappings and deadly gang violence, the police, judiciary and prosecutor’s office often seem to work at cross purposes and the well-heeled and well-connected often get lenient treatment.

“The journalist’s car was found in the possession of Serjo with a new tag, and new registration,” said a police officer familiar with the case but not authorized to speak. Police, he said, were looking into whether the case was part of a stolen car ring “when the court decided to kill the investigation.”

‘We arrest and they release’

The Haiti National Police officer said while frustrating, the behavior of the justice system in the case was unfortunately not unusual. He cited several instances where police have attempted to dismantle gangs by arresting their leaders based on police investigations, only to have judges free the individuals, sometimes after mere hours.

“We arrest and they release,” the officer said.

The National Human Rights Defense Network, which is investigating the stolen vehicle case, said Massillon benefited from special treatment. In a report, the human rights group said Massillon was freed by the judge in charge of the Court of First Instance in Port-au-Prince, and the order was signed by another district attorney in the public prosecutor’s office as it awaited the results of the police investigation.

”The public prosecutor’s office was supposed to wait for the conclusion of the investigation that it asked to be carried out,” said Rosy Auguste Ducena, a human rights lawyer with the National Human Rights Defense Network. “But what you have instead, is that they were not interested in waiting for the investigation to conclude. They were looking for a reason to free him and they found it.”

Deputy District Attorney Gérald Bélony Norgaisse who signed the order, told the Miami Herald that he was executing his duties after Massillon was ordered freed by Magistrate Bernard Saint-Vil, the dean of the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince, during an Oct. 20 writ of habeas corpus hearing. The legal petition is used to determine whether a person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.

Norgaisse said he was unaware of the legal issues surrounding the case until he saw the National Human Rights Defense Network’s report.

Even still, Norgaisse said, he doesn’t have the power to defy a judge’s order. He also placed blame on the deputy district attorney, Orange Romain, who ordered the police investigation. Describing Romain as an inexperienced prosecutor, Norgaisse said he should have forwarded the case to an investigative judge so that formal charges can be brought. It also would have alerted other district attorneys that it was a pending case, he said.

Romain, who was contacted by the Herald, did not respond to questions and the Herald could not reach Massillon or his attorney.

Mérancourt, the journalist, said he feels re-victimized and fears for his safety. All of his personal information, for example, was in the car when it was stolen.

“The justice system of my country has not shown me that it wants to protect me,” Mérancourt said. “This has turned my life upside down; I’ve had no choice but to leave my house and go into hiding and I really am not able to work as a journalist, the way I should. They know where I work so I can’t even go to the office.”

An army soldier, illegal gun and stolen SUV

The theft of the Suzuki occurred on Oct. 15, 2020, as Mérancourt was leaving his office. Two armed men, he said, approached him and ordered him to get into the back seat. One drove, while the other pointed the gun into his ribs. Afraid he would be kidnapped, or worse killed, he answered their questions while telling him that journalists in Haiti do not make money and therefore his abduction would not yield a big payday.

Then on Sept. 30 of this year, he spotted the car traveling down Martin Luther King Avenue. The paint had been scraped off and the two headlights were missing. But Mérancourt recognized his vehicle nevertheless because of all of the dents he had endured driving over potholes and in Haiti’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. When police stopped the car and ordered Massillon to get out, he identified himself as a member of the Forces Armées d’Haiti or FAd’H, as the army is known.

In his possession were 14 bullets and a 9-millimeter Walther caliber pistol that was neither a service revolver nor registered in his name. The tag on the Suzuki belonged to a beige Honda Accord and the registration papers were in the name of someone else, according to the police investigation obtained by the Herald. When police checked the SUV’s serial number against the one written on the police report that Mérancourt had been carrying around, they saw that there was a match.

Massillon was arrested and taken to the Canapé-Vert sub-police station on charges of vehicle theft, illegal detention with a gun and association with lawbreakers. On Oct. 4, Romain, the assistant district attorney, assigned the case to a specialized unit of the judicial police for further investigation, and gave them a deadline of 30 days to file their findings.

While Romain was waiting on police to conclude the investigation, a habeas corpus petition was filed by Massillon’s attorney, on the grounds that his imprisonment was unlawful. Saint-Vil, who is in charge of the court, presided over the hearing and after mere hours decided Massillon should be freed, even though police had not yet turned in their report. Saint-Vil did not respond to a request for comment from the Herald.

Auguste said the human rights group is still trying to understand why Massillon was afforded a benefit denied to so many other prisoners. She noted that in Haiti, more than 80 percent of the prison inmates are entitled to a similar hearing over their prolonged detention but never get it. Some spend as much as 10 years behind bars without ever seeing a judge or having charges filed.

“In Haiti, it’s complicated because there is a lot of influence peddling,” she said. “Everyone knows someone who knows someone.”

The search for justice in Haiti has long been elusive. Quasi-absent in most cases, it is often denied because files are stolen, judges are bought off or forced to seek exile in the case of some high-profile cases often involving killings, corruption or high-ranking officials. Lately, it’s been further crumbling due to protests by judges and court clerks over higher pay and better working conditions, and by armed gangs disrupting proceedings with their violent clashes or demands that courthouses be cleared out.

Adding to the paralysis, the head of the National Association of Haitian Magistrates, Jean Wilner Morin, said this week that about 70% of the country’s investigative judges, whose work is akin to a grand jury in the U.S., have had their terms expired for almost a year. The absence of investigative judges in some jurisdictions, he said, will prolong the preventive detention problem in the country.

As of Sept. 29, Haiti’s three prisons in the metropolitan Port-au-Prince jurisdiction, for example, had a combined inmate population of 4,011 inmates, according to the National Human Rights Defense Network. Of them, 3,618 have been languishing in illegal and arbitrary preventive detention, said the organization, which has criticized the phenomenon.

‘Total disorder’ in prosecutor’s office

The stolen vehicle case, Auguste said, is just one more example of how “impunity reigns in Haiti” and that despite its assertion to the contrary, the public prosecutor’s office in Haiti is not “one and indivisible.”

“The public prosecutor’s office operates in complete and total disorder, and it is one where one prosecutor doesn’t respect what the other is doing,” she said, referring to the three different district attorneys on the case with each contradicting the other. “Thirdly, the judicial authorities are not ready to show that they are ready to provide justice. We are talking about a victim who stayed on top of his case from the onset…it’s someone who wants to find justice, but what you see is that they easily dismissed it.”

On Nov. 12, the police forwarded its investigation to the public prosecutor’s office. It determined that the vehicle in question was indeed stolen and Massillon was not only in possession of a tag and registration not belonging to the vehicle, but the gun was illegal. During questioning, he told police that he purchased it from someone, according to a copy of the police investigative report.

The report has since been forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office, and Auguste said she is waiting to see what happens next, specifically if it’s assigned to an investigative judge so that formal charges can be administered. In the meantime, an accused car thief is free and his victim, fearful.

“I have people who are close to the guy, who know him well and they are advising me to leave the country, saying my life is in danger,” said Mérancourt, who is still paying on the vehicle, which remains at the police pound. “I do feel like my life is in danger but at the same time, I am determined to live and work in my country, Haiti, as a journalist.

“I am placing my life in the hands of those who freed him but I am hoping that the justice system will work and dismantle this network of people who use the force of the state to persecute citizens and take from them things that they have worked to purchase,” he said.

This story was originally published December 3, 2021 11:23 AM.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.