WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haitian President Jovenel Moise has retired three Supreme Court justices, two days after announcing a foiled coup attempt.
The retired justices are Yvickel Dabrezil, who was arrested by the national police in an operation to thwart an alleged coup attempt in the early morning hours of Sunday, Justices Wendelle Coq Thelot and Joseph Mecene Jean Louis.
Jean Louis, the most senior member of the Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation), issued a video Monday that was posted on social media, in which he declared he has accepted the nomination by the opposition and civil society members to "serve his country as provisional president of the transition".
Haiti’s opposition has insisted for months that President Moise’s term expires on February 7, 2021 according to the constitution and that a transitional government should replace him. Their plan calls for a Supreme Court justice to serve as provisional president – in accordance with the constitution – until elections can be held to choose a new president.
Moise says his term will expire in February 2022, a date accepted by the U.S., United Nations and Organization of American States. They have urged Moise to organize elections “as soon as technically feasible, followed by 2021 presidential elections.”
Haiti should have held presidential and legislative elections in 2020 to choose Moise’s successor but was unable to do so due to the coronavirus pandemic and insecurity. Moise has been ruling by decree since January of 2020 when the terms of 2/3 of the parliament expired.
The three judges retired by Moise are in the line of succession. The country's constitution stipulates that a member of the high court should serve as provisional president if a president is unable to perform his duties.
Is the decree legal?
There are questions regarding the legality of Moise's decree. Jean Wilner Morin, president of the National Association of Haitian Magistrates, ANAMAH, says it is a violation of the constitution.
"Article 177 of the constitution says you cannot retire a judge against his will, you cannot transfer him. For a judge to be retired he must be 60 years old or incapacitated and unable to perform his duties," Morin said in an interview with a Haitian radio station Tuesday. "You must have worked for at least 25 years in the (judiciary) institution and must make a request to retire. So we see these judges Yvickel Dabrezil who is 55, Joseph Mecene Jean Louis is 72 - (were targeted because) they are people who are in the line of succession and could replace Jovenel Moise."
Judge Morin said ANAMAH considers Justice Dabrezil's arrest a "kidnapping" and described the conditions of his detention as "deplorable." Morin, who visited the justice in jail on Monday said Dabrezil was kicked by an arresting officer. He suffers from hypertension and diabetes and was denied food or water for over 12 hours. The cell where he is being held is surrounded by police officers, and he was denied permission to bathe. He sleeps in a chair, Morin said.
Morin said ANAMAH is working to get the justice released.
"His family and the association of judges - we met yesterday and took measures we don’t want to talk about publicly yet - that will allow for his release," Morin said.
US urges Moise to avoid ruling by decree
Both the Biden and Trump administrations have warned Moise repeatedly against ruling by decree. On Monday, a State Department spokesperson reiterated its position.
"The United States continues to maintain that the Haitian government should exercise restraint in issuing decrees, only using that power to schedule legislative elections and for matters of immediate threats to life, health, and safety until parliament is restored and can resume its constitutional responsibilities,” a spokesperson said, in response to VOA's question.
The State Department and the United Nations told VOA Monday they are closely following the events in Haiti and await results of the Haitian police investigation on the arrests made on Sunday.
"The United States is following the situation in Haiti with concern and calls on all political actors to address their differences through peaceful means. We understand the Haitian National Police is investigating 23 individuals who were arrested over the weekend. The situation remains murky and we await the results of the police investigation," a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
On the streets of Port-au-Prince, not far from the national palace, an anti-government protester told VOA people support the opposition’s decision to choose a provisional president among the Supreme Court justices.
“We the people embrace this idea because it’s not a decision that was made by a monarchy. You can tell they put the constitution first and chose a judge from the Supreme Court as the constitution mandates,” he said. “If there’s a vacancy at the national palace, a supreme court judge should be the replacement.”
On Tuesday, the Caribbean nation remains tense after police exchanged gunfire with protesters demanding President Moise resign. Two journalists were seriously injured and hospitalized.
Matiado Vilme in Port-au-Prince, Cindy Saine at the State Department and Margaret Besheer at the United Nations contributed to this report.