In an exclusive interview with VOA Creole, Haitian President Jovenel Moise on Tuesday defended his decree announcing the “retirement” of three Supreme Court justices saying the move is aimed at “protecting” the high court.
On Monday, opposition leaders seeking to end Moïse's rule declared Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis as interim president. That move came one day after Moïse announced police had arrested more than 20 people he accused of trying to kill him and overthrow his government.
The opposition and Moise, who is currently ruling by decree after dissolving a majority of Parliament in January 2020, are embroiled in a long-running dispute over when Moïse’s term should end. The opposition says it ended Sunday. Moïse says he has another year.
“The council of ministers met yesterday and we took measures to protect democracy and the independence of the judiciary branch. Because as you know, the judiciary branch is independent, the executive branch is independent, the legislative branch is independent. But the president is the guarantor of the national institutions and in reality this decision was made, as I said, to protect the institution of the republic which is called the Supreme Court,” President Moise told VOA Creole, speaking via Skype from his office in Port-au-Prince.
WATCH VOA Creole Interview with President Jovenel Moise
The U.S. State Department expressed concern Tuesday.
“We are deeply concerned about any actions that risk damaging Haiti’s democratic institutions,” a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs told VOA. “The executive order is now being widely scrutinized to determine whether it conforms to Haiti’s Constitution and laws.”
The United Nations also told VOA it is closely following developments in Haiti.
“We emphasize the importance of ensuring the separation of powers, the non-politicization and respect for and autonomy of the independence of a judiciary,” a spokesperson told VOA.
Moise alarmed Haitians Monday when he issued the decree announcing that justices Yvickel Dabrezil, who was arrested by national police during an operation to thwart the alleged coup in the early hours of Sunday, Wendelle Coq Thelot and Jean-Louis are now retired.
Jean-Louis, the most senior member of the Supreme Court, posted a video to social media on Monday in which he declared he had accepted the nomination by the opposition and civil society members to "serve his country as provisional president of the transition."
President Moise defended his actions, telling VOA they were justified because the three targeted judges decided to involve themselves in politics.
“I see that people are asking many questions," he said. "There's a lot of talk out there, but as I said, we are here to respect the law and the mission of the law ... and that is why, as a guarantor of the institutions, we cannot allow an institution such as the Supreme Court to stray from its mission.”
Is it legal?
Jean Wilner Morin, president of the National Association of Haitian Judges, called Moise’s decree retaliatory and unconstitutional.
“This is retaliation against the justices of the Supreme Court," Morin told VOA. "[They are] all judges of character who want to apply the law.”
Pressed by VOA Creole, Moise denied his decision was retaliatory or meant to remove officials in line of presidential succession, which, as stipulated by Haiti's constitution, requires a Supreme Court justice to replace a president deemed unable to perform official duties.
“There is no connection. The connection is with the law and what it dictates. As president the law dictates how I do my job,” Moise said. “The same law dictates how a judge should function. Put yourself in my shoes ... you see a judge giving a speech as president. How can a country have a president and then a judge gives a [presidential] speech? That means one is stepping on the other's toes.
“That's why I made the decision," he added. "The judges were retired to avoid this dangerous situation that the country is living. We have three judges who claim to be president — in fact, when a person reads a speech claiming he is president, the only thing left [for him] to do is move into the palace," Moise said.
Morin told VOA that “Article 177 of the Haitian constitution states that the justices of the Supreme Court, the Appeals Court, the Circuit Courts are irremovable.” The judge said a 1995 amendment to the constitution addresses the retirement of judges.
“A judge cannot retire, be promoted or moved from one jurisdiction to another without his consent,” Morin told VOA.
After the age of 60, if a judge’s health is failing or his mental faculties are not 100% he has the right to request retirement, Morin said. A law adopted in 2007 separates judges from other public servants and sets “special procedures” regarding how they are to be dealt with.
Judge transferred to prison
Justice Dabrezil, who was arrested Sunday, was transferred out of detention this afternoon and moved to the Prison Civile de Croix des Bouquets in a Port-au-Prince suburb.
VOA Creole reporter Matiado Vilme says Dabrezil was moved without being arraigned. As a Supreme Court judge, his authority would supercede that of a lower court judge.
Protesters say Moise no longer president
Tuesday afternoon, people in the Solino neighborhood of the capital, took to the streets and danced to Rara music as they protested the president’s latest actions and refusal to step down.
“Enough, we can’t take it anymore!” a protester shouted.
"We’re on the street because Jovenel Moise’s presidency is over as of February 7, according to article 134-2 of the constitution,” said a protester holding a poster of Supreme Court Justice Jean Louis. “Jovenel Moise has chosen to violate the constitution he swore to uphold. We want people to know we applaud the opposition for giving us a new president who will be the 59th president [of Haiti] — Joseph Mecene Jean Louis.”
Nike Ching at the State Department, Margaret Besheer at the United Nations, Jacquelin Belizaire at VOA Creole in Washington, Renan Toussaint and Matiado Vilme in Port-au-Prince Haiti contributed to this report.
*See the full interview with President Jovenel Moise in Creole on VOA Creole's web site - www.voanouvel.com