A new power struggle erupted in Haiti on Tuesday threatening to plunge the country into further political turmoil barely two months after the president was assassinated in a shocking crime that is still being investigated.
The new crisis centers on two suspicious phone calls in the early hours of July 7, the night of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, between the current Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, and one of the chief suspects, Joseph Felix Badio, a disgraced former justice ministry official who remains a fugitive.
On Friday, Henry was invited by the chief prosecutor for the capital, Port-au-Prince, to answers questions about the phone calls which lasted a total of seven minutes and which police say were initiated by Badio from the vicinity of the crime scene. The calls were placed from near the president's residence at 4:03 am and 4:20am, barely three hours after the assassination, according to the phone company’s records using GPS, or global positioning technology.
Many Haitians are curious to know what the prime minister was doing on the phone with one of the suspected masterminds of the crime so soon after the president was gunned down in his bedroom, apparently by a team of Colombian former soldiers who had been hired to do security work in Haiti by the Miami firm.
Henry has not directly addressed the phone calls and has previously defended Badio in comments to a local radio station saying that he knew him and didn’t believe he was involved because he lacked the means to carry off such a crime.
Henry has also assured the nation that the authors of the assassination will be brought to justice. “The real culprits, the intellectual authors and co-author and sponsor of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse will be found and brought to justice and punished for their crimes,” he said on Saturday.
Henry was named by Moïse to the post of prime minister two days before his assassination as part of an effort to reduce political tensions. A respected neurosurgeon and political moderate, he would appear to have little motive to be involved in the assassination plot. But since taking office he has angered some allies of Moïse who now appear to be lining up against him.
At a cabinet meeting on Monday, a defiant Henry fired the offending prosecutor, Bed-ford Claude.
The next day, Claude asked a judge to charge Henry in the slaying of the president and ordered officials to bar him from leaving the country due to the incriminating evidence against him.
“There are enough compromising elements ... to prosecute Henry and ask for his outright indictment,” Claude wrote in the order.
In the order he cited several articles in the criminal code to “justify the implementation of public action against Mr Ariel Henry,” due to “these extremely serious facts of conspiracy against the internal security of the state.”
But legal experts say the prosecutor lacks authority over criminal investigations while they are still in the process of being conducted by the judicial authorities – known as the ‘Judge of Instruction’ or Magistrate Judge - assigned to the case.
“ What’s going on in Haiti is very sad. None of this is legal,” said Jean Sénat Fleury, a longtime Haitian investigative judge who immigrated to the United States in 2007.
“This is not justice, it’s politics,” he added. “I spent 20 years as a judge in Haiti and I don’t understand what’s going on there.”
Sure enough, later on Tuesday the prosecutor's firing was made official. In a brief letter, Henry told Claude that he had been fired for an undefined “serious administrative fault." It wasn’t immediately clear how Claude’s removal would impact the case and if Henry would still have to explain the phone calls.
More than 40 suspects have been arrested in the case, including 18 former Colombian soldiers who recently accused Haitian police of torture.
Badio is a former anti-corruption officials at the Ministry of Justice who was fired in March for alleged unethical conduct of his own. He has not been seen, or issued any public statement, since that night.
Other evidence in the case, including leaked testimony by some of the former Colombian soldiers, implicates Badio in ordering the assassination, though it remains unclear what his motive was or if there were other intellectual authors behind him.