Former Haitian opposition Senator Nenel Cassy was freed Friday, hours after he was arrested in Miragoane, a town on Haiti’s west coast, on orders of President Jovenel Moise.
Cassy, who represented former President Jean Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party in parliament and is a native of the region, had traveled to Miragoane on Thursday to seek the release of political activists who had been arrested during an anti-government protest earlier in the day. They were charged with committing "flagrant delinquent acts" but were released with Cassy.
"What happened yesterday is unfathomable; even under the Duvalier regime this was never done," the former senator said in recounting his ordeal for reporters during a press conference on Friday.
"The attorney general arrived at the police station where lawyer Andre (Michel) and I were talking to the departmental director. Two policemen were present, and Andre was asking them to release the activists. When he (Jean Ernest Muscadin, the attorney general for Miragoane) arrived, he said, 'We're going to arrest the senator.' He said, ‘The president of the republic has asked me to arrest Senator Cassy.’ When I asked him, ‘Which president? Jovenel?’ He responded, “Yes, Jovenel said I must arrest you today,’" Cassy said.
The former senator said when he asked Muscadin what he was to be charged with, he was told, "This is an order from the president."
"He (the attorney general) told me tremendous pressure had been exerted by the president to make the arrest and he (Moise) threatened to fire him if he didn't do it," Cassy said. "‘If I went against the order, I'd have to flee the country,’ he told me.”
Cassy said the attorney general then handcuffed him.
Muscadin, during an interview on a Haitian radio show, confirmed that Moise had asked him to arrest Cassy.
Moise has not commented on the arrest. But in a Jan. 18 speech, Moise warned his political opponents that the country's new intelligence agency was keeping watch and that any "vagabonds" found to be handing out money to encourage people to protest would face consequences.
News of Cassy's arrest spread quickly on social media, sparking outrage from Haitians and the diaspora. VOA Creole reporters said they saw tires burning on some streets of the capital and that makeshift barricades were erected, including in front of the police station where Cassy was being held.
Meanwhile, opposition politicians, who tend to disagree on most topics, rallied to support the senator, calling on Moise to rescind the arrest order.
"Senator Nenel Cassy has just been arrested in Miragoane at the office of the director of the police department in accordance with an order from President Jovenel Moise," lawyer and opposition leader Andre Michel tweeted from Miragoane. "The battle for the respect of the constitution must be sped up. Unacceptable. Shut down the country."
Senator Joseph Lambert, president of the Haitian Senate, expressed dismay.
“The competent authorities should evaluate this act. Democracy is too fragile. We must preserve it,” he said. In a subsequent tweet, Senator Lambert said he asked the authorities to reevaluate Cassy’s arrest.
“The position of the Senate is clearly in favor of (respect for) individual freedoms. Haiti has chosen democracy,” Lambert said.
Former Chamber of Deputies leader Deputy Gary Bodeau also took to Twitter to criticize the arrest of his former colleague.
"The Nippes (department) attorney general should be arresting kidnappers and establishing law and order. We demand the immediate release of former Senator @Cassynenel. I was against (this type of arrest) under Duvalier, under Aristide's government and now under @moisejovenel," he tweeted.
Opposition Senator Youri Latortue told reporters he alerted the ambassadors of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) and the OAS (Organization of American States) about the arrest and asked for their assistance.
"Today on an international level, they recognize that human rights are being violated and in Haiti we have no choice but to unite and that's why we are together today to say no to dictatorship, no to these violations," Latortue said. "We can only achieve that (goal) if we stand together."
During his press conference Friday, Cassy decried the harassment he and his family have endured at the hands of the Moise government.
"My security guards were arrested and released after six months because they couldn't find anything to charge them with. They arrested my mother a few days ago in Miragoane, they shot at me, they arrested me, the country has become a living hell for me under the PHTK government (Pati Ayisyen Tet Kale - President Moise's ruling party)," Cassy said.
In the past, the opposition leader, who has frequently participated in anti-government protests, has criticized Moise for not curbing crime, addressing the economic crisis or human rights abuses and for ruling by decree. On Wednesday, he joined a group of peaceful protesters near the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince to call on the new Biden administration not to support the Moise government and to demand Moise resign on Feb. 7.
Pressure from US, international community
In 2020, Haiti faced increased pressure from the Trump administration, the Organization of American States and the United Nations to hold elections as soon as possible. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden had promised Haitians and Haitian Americans that he would work with Haiti’s government to hold elections as soon as possible.
A few days before the Christmas holiday, a joint statement issued by Representatives Andy Levin, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Gregory Meeks, incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Albio Sires, chair of the Western Hemisphere civilian security and trade subcommittee, said they were watching events unfold in Haiti with “growing concern.”
“Haitian President Jovenel Moise is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian course of action, issuing a series of recent decrees that include creating an extraconstitutional domestic ‘intelligence’ force,” the statement said. “His latest actions are reminiscent of past anti-democratic abuses the Haitian people have endured, including the run-up to the Duvalier dictatorship. We will not stand idly by while Haiti devolves into chaos.”
Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, expressed outrage about the statement in an exclusive interview with VOA in December.
“It saddens us to see democratic officials call for a transitional government. We don’t think that going through a transition again will help Haiti," Edmond said.
The ambassador questioned the feasibility of the January 2021 timeframe suggested by the U.S. to hold elections. He told VOA the Moise government believes an overhaul of the current constitution is necessary first and that there are plans to hold a referendum on that in spring 2021.
“I think we have already met them in the middle,” Edmond told VOA. “We have agreed to elections. President Moise has done his job in naming an electoral council. We are working on possible calendars to submit now.”
Haiti's presidential and legislative elections are now scheduled for September 2021.
In the meantime, the newly reinvigorated and united opposition vows to keep protesting in the streets to demand Moise respect the constitution and step down on Feb. 7.