Stolen court safe held files in high-profile killing in Haiti

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In this file photo, Haiti National Police officers stand still in front of the national palace as demonstrators march to seek justice for the murder of Monferrier Dorval, head of the bar association in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in Haiti on September 3, 2020.

AFP via Getty Images

It is one of Haiti’s most high-profile whodunits after this summer’s brutal assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse — and now key files in the murder investigation are missing.

Sometime in late October, unknown individuals broke into the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince and carted away a heavy safe in the clerks’ vault, which contains, among other things, evidence-gathering documents in the killing of Port-au-Prince Bar Association chief Monferrier Dorval.

Dorval, who lived in the same Pèlerin 5 neighborhood as the president, was shot multiple times at close range in the driveway of his home on Aug. 28, 2020. The shocking assassination happened a year before Moïse’s, and just hours after Dorval gave an explosive radio interview where he criticized the country’s lack of governance and the president’s controversial constitutional reform efforts.

Now the missing Dorval investigative files have some wondering if the lawyer and respected constitutional law expert will ever find justice — and also asking what it says about the potential fate of the Moïse investigation, which has been stymied by political interference, procedural missteps and now a COVID-19-related death of one of the jailed suspects.

“Every time there is a huge case that comes before the Palace of Justice of Port-au-Prince, whether it involves the use of arms or large sums of money, the files always disappear,” said Ainé Martin who heads the National Association of Haitian Clerks. “Those of us who are part of the National Association of Haitian Clerks, we consider this to be a national embarrassment because it keeps happening.”

Bernard Saint-Vil, the dean of the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince, confirmed the latest break-in and said police were investigating.

He also confirmed that the office of Investigative Judge Garry Orélien, who is leading the secret inquiry into the Moïse murder investigation, was also broken into. Despite Orélien’s door being smashed in, Saint-Vil said no documents had been stolen because Orélien had taken the precautionary steps to store the files away from his office in a secret location.

Martin, the clerks association president, isn’t completely convinced that the president’s files have not been tampered with. Some documents from the ongoing judicial probe into Moïse’s July 7 middle-of-the-night assassination, he said, were in Orélien’s office and it was evident that they were tampered with, which means “some pages could be missing.”

But the target, Martin said, was the Dorval files, which were kept in the safe along with other sensitive documents including 12 years of assets declarations made in the Port-au-Prince jurisdiction.

Record of court thefts

Over the years, there have been several examples of courthouse thefts where documents and even cash in criminal cases have gone missing after someone gained access to a judge’s office with a set of keys. But few can remember the last time an entire safe was taken.

Still, this latest burglary marks the second time that evidence in the Dorval murder investigation has been targeted.

Two months after the lawyer’s killing, unknown individuals broke into the office of the investigative judge assigned to the case and carted off a cellphone, SIM card, money and other evidence gathered during the police probe. The break-in came after media reports that Haitian investigators had traced one of the cellphones to several individuals, including an employee at the Ministry of the Interior.

At the time of the first break-in, Saint-Vil said there was no sign of forced entry, and the secretary general of the Port-au-Prince Bar Federation, Robinson Pierre-Louis, said the phone in question had been stored elsewhere along with other vital evidence.

Pierre-Louis said unlike the first time when the Dorval evidence was targeted, this time they went to the extreme.

“What is strange, is that they carried away the safe; something that’s heavy,” he said, noting that he had insisted on tightened security after last year’s burglary. “I will repeat what I’ve always said: ‘This is a case that presents a lot of problems due to the people who are implicated; these people are powerful.’ ”

To underscore his point, Pierre-Louis noted that the investigative judge, Rénord Régis, tendered his resignation this September after his security detail and vehicle were pulled, and he allegedly became the targets of threats. Régis was also frustrated by the lack of support from the government prosecutor’s office, which failed to execute his summons for certain high-profile personalities connected to the National Palace to appear before him to give testimony.

In his Sept. 15 resignation letter to Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judicial Power, Régis, who has since fled to the U.S., said the general conditions that characterize the functioning of the judicial system in Haiti “so deeply” disappointed him that he had no choice but to step down from the office.

“He had already completed 70% of the investigation,” Pierre-Louis said. “Of the eight people the judge wanted to hear from, he only heard from me.”

A critical case

Pierre-Louis said despite the missing files and perhaps evidence — neither he nor Martin are sure whether some of the evidence like cellphones was in the safe — the Dorval case must be resolved.

“It’s an obligation for us,” he said. “If this case doesn’t get justice, you might as well close the doors of the courthouses, and forget about justice in this country; they might as well shut down everything that has to do with a judicial system.”

As for the pending fate of the Moïse investigation, Pierre-Louis said, “If he had ensured that Dorval received justice, he too would find it. He did all he could to boycott it. … When I asked him for an independent international judicial inquiry, he never agreed to it.”

International organizations, including the American Bar Association, and Haitian groups have criticized the Moïse government on its failure to make progress in investigating Dorval’s death and for the late president’s refusal to get outside assistance. That criticism was reignited after the latest break-in.

“[It] represents a severe blow to justice and justice seekers in the jurisdiction of the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince,” the Port-au-Prince-based human rights organization Open Eyes Foundation (Fondasyon Je Klere or FJKL) said of the brazen theft.

“After forcing into exile the judge in charge of the case, refusing to execute his orders, it is now the investigation files, together with the documents in the file, that have disappeared,” the organization said in a statement. It accused the Haitian state of deliberating trivializing “the right to life” and maintaining and strengthening “a murderous public order and a mafia state.”

“Why the state systematically refuses to take the necessary steps to facilitate the investigation of the assassination of [Dorval]? Why the state still does not want to seek international judiciary cooperation to shed light on the assassination?” the organization asked. “What is the state’s responsibility for this heinous crime?”

Haiti’s broken judicial system has long been plagued by pervasive corruption and a lack of resources. The offices of judges are bare, sometimes without even a computer; photocopy machines are often broken or without ink; and testimonies are handwritten by court clerks who bring their own paper from home.

Some judges have also complained that after rendering verdicts they often have to catch public buses, sometimes sharing the bus ride with the relatives of the newly convicted, because their measly salaries don’t allow them to purchase a vehicle.

“The judiciary is so corrupt that the authorities don’t make the resources available so that the clerks can do their job. Even if they give you a computer, they won’t provide you with a printer,” said Martin, who sees the break-in as part of a deeper, endemic problem within the system.

‘File disappears, so does the testimony’

Judicial investigations, which are similar to a grand jury probe in the U.S., are often targets of document thieves, Martin said, and often testimony is taken on a legal pad. The page is later torn out and placed in a file “and once that file disappears, so does the testimony.”

“Even the possibility to record isn’t given. If they had provided this, we wouldn’t even be talking about the lack of availability of sheets of paper or the missing testimonies right now,” he added.

Throughout any court procedure, copies are supposed to be made along the way, but that isn’t always the case in Haiti, Martin said, adding to his frustrations. “A file isn’t supposed to be lost by the justice system.”

In August, the clerks association wrote to judicial authorities asking for increased security at the court, which is just yards away from a gang stronghold and infamous kidnapping lair in downtown Port-au-Prince. Among the requests: improved lighting, security cameras and a constant police presence.

“Nothing was done,” said Martin, who believes the courthouse has intentionally been left vulnerable to theft in order to make it easier for documents to disappear and corruption to occur. “We’ve said there needs to be 24-7 security inside the palace of justice, there needs to be cameras installed so you can trace the steps of the thieves.”

Martin said judicial authorities are trying to reconstruct the Dorval investigation files with the help of the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police.

“They may be able to rebuild some, but they won’t be able to reconstruct all of them,” he said.

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.