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Haiti’s First Family Under Corruption Probe Cloud

Demonstrators march through the streets of Port-au-Prince during an anti-government protestDecember 5, demanding the resignation of Hatian President Michel Martelly.

Demonstrators march through the streets of Port-au-Prince during an anti-government protestDecember 5, demanding the resignation of Hatian President Michel Martelly.

Haiti’s first family is spending this end of year holiday season under a legal cloud.

The streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and other cities have been mobbed with protestors demanding Haitian President Michel Martelly’s resignation.

The Haitian Court of Justice on December 16 decreed that a corruption investigation focused on the president’s son Olivier, and the First Lady Sophia, could proceed. The two are accused of crimes including abuse of authority, money laundering, and squandering public funds. Sophia and Olivier have steadfastly asserted their innocence.

No corruption related charges have been brought against Martelly.

Days before the Court of Justice decision, thousands of Haitians marched in angry protests against Martelly and his government. They did the same in November. In the face of public rage, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resigned.

While analysts say much of the anger stems from the Martelly’s foot-dragging on his longstanding promise of elections, there is also considerable popular discontent with what is called Haiti’s “culture of corruption”.

The head of the Heritage Foundation for Haiti, Marilyn Allien, is closely watching the Martelly investigation and other corruption developments. Her organization is a branch of the global better-governance group Transparency International.

“The president’s wife and the president’s son should not be managing state funds, regardless of whether they are managing them honestly or dishonestly,” Allien told VOA. “It is not their role to do that. It creates the perception that there is corruption and fraud going on.”

Transparency International ranks Haiti eighth from the bottom out of 175 countries surveyed in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. Haiti shares that low rung on the ladder with Yemen, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Venezuela.

The accusations against the first lady and the president’s son notwithstanding, Haiti’s Transparency International chief says Martelly appears to be “clean.”

“We have never received a complaint for acts pertaining to acts committed by the president,” she said.

But Martelly’s political opponents are taking aim at Martelly.

Haitian Senator Moise Jean-Charles, told the web publication “Haiti Liberte” that “President Martelly had the governor of the central bank give him five bulletproof cars, which cost the Haitian state $2.5 million.”

Jean-Charles said the bank governor also purchased 60 Toyota SUVs “for [Martelly’s] children, for his wife, and for people living with him. These,” Senator Jean-Charles said, “are the type of costs being incurred by President Martelly, the president of the poorest nation on the continent.”

Haiti has an official anti-corruption unit, known by its French initials, ULCC. Last June, new anti-corruption legislation championed by the ULCC was signed into law by Martelly. The measures were also supported and promoted by Allien’s Heritage Foundation.

But Allien said the work of the ULCC is hampered by several factors.

“If there is sufficient proof that there has been an act, or acts, of corruption,” she said, “They [the ULCC] has to bring the case to the prosecutor’s office – and this is where there is a major bottleneck.”

“The cases stay there, dormant, for months and months – sometimes, for years,” she said. “The prosecutor’s office doesn’t move very rapidly.”

The good governance advocate says another factor hampering the fight against corruption is parliament’s inertia.

“The [anti-corruption] law that was recently voted on in May 2014 was a law that was drafted in 2008,” Allien said. “It is a law that we sorely needed, because it covers a number of practices that were not covered by previous legislation.”

As for why Haiti’s parliament took so long to enact this and other laws, Allien said “Too many of them [Haiti’s lawmakers] are too busy being involved in politics, and perceive their job as simply [one of] controlling the executive [branch, i.e., the president] and not doing the job for which they were elected, which is voting on laws.”

Allien said despite Haiti’s anti-corruption shortcomings and the slow pace of its institutions, at least the country allows watchdog groups such as Transparency International, and a similar group, the RNDDH – headed by Pierre Esperance – to operate freely.

“We are not harassed,” she told VOA. “We have a very good climate in which to work. “We do not feel [that we are] under attack.”

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.