MIAMI - A week after his long-sought arrest on U.S. drug-trafficking and related charges, Haitian rebel leader and politician Guy Philippe appeared in a Miami federal courtroom Friday and entered a formal plea of not guilty.
Philippe, 48, was elected to the Haitian Senate last fall but has not yet been sworn in. He was surprised by Haitian law enforcement last week while leaving a radio station in suburban Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
Turned over to U.S. authorities, he was flown to Florida to face charges involving cocaine smuggling into the United States and a money-laundering conspiracy.
The charges, which date to 2005, could bring a sentence of up to life in prison.
Philippe led rebellion
The prosecution was given 15 days to present evidence supporting the charges. Before the hearing, one of Philippe's attorneys told reporters his trial likely would take place “in a month or two.”
A former police chief, Philippe led a 2004 rebellion against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, forcing him out of power and into exile.
The Friday morning arraignment lasted less than five minutes. Afterward, Philippe, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, flashed a smile at his supporters in the small courtroom.
About a hundred other supporters waited outside, some wearing white T-shirts with the slogan “Free Philippe” in Creole, Valerio Saint-Louis, a television reporter with Tele Image in New York, told VOA's Creole Service. Others wore white clothing to symbolize what they contend is Philippe's innocence. They say his arrest was politically motivated.
“We are here to support Senator Guy Philippe. We all feel like he is innocent,” Evince Francois, a Senate candidate for a different seat, told the Associated Press. “We are here to let him know we stand up behind him. We think this is all politics.”
Police stop confrontation
But four other demonstrators held a darker view of Philippe, Saint-Louis said. They carried cardboard signs with his photograph and called for him to be detained for at least 20 years.
Human Rights Watch previously had accused him of participating in extrajudicial killings during the rebellion.
Members of the two groups shouted at each other, but police intervened to calm the scene, Saint-Louis said.
Philippe's arrest has raised questions about U.S.-Haiti extradition policies and about how Haiti's parliament should proceed.
The suspect said the United States lacks the legal authority to make arrests in Haiti. One of his lawyers also suggested that his election as a senator should give Philippe immunity from prosecution.
Request for information
Jean Renel Senatus, chairman of the Haitian Senate's judiciary committee, called for his government to provide more information on the arrest and extradition.
“I don't know what will happen if Guy Philippe cannot be sworn in. The electoral law does not address that,” he said in Creole. “And the Haitian constitution does not allow deportation of Haitians to another country or revocation of their citizenship.”
Meanwhile, the executive director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network applauded Philippe's arrest, criticizing a legislature that he said already had unfit politicians.
"In the Haitian parliament, there are drug traffickers, people with questionable records for their involvement in kidnapping, drug trafficking and other crimes," Pierre Esperance said. "It's the reason why I welcome the Guy Philippe arrest, because at least one delinquent will not reach the parliament."
A video circulating on social media shows Natalie Philippe, the defendant's wife, asking for contributions to his legal defense through a GoFundMe account.
VOA Creole Service's Jacquelin Belizaire and Jean-Pierre Leroy contributed to this story, as did correspondent Renan Toussaint from Port-au-Prince.?