Haiti Former Senator, Mayor, Six Others Docked Over Killing Of  Journalist

Official Facebook page of Sen. Rony Célestin

Official Facebook page of Sen. Rony Célestin

LAGOS MAY 10TH (NEWSRANGERS)-A former senator and the acting mayor of a small Haiti town have been charged in the death of a journalist whose 2019 killing, amid the country’s deepening political crisis, sparked protests and calls for an investigation after he became the third journalist in the country killed in less than two years.

A popular radio host of a sociopolitical talk show, Néhémie Joseph worked for both Radio Panic FM in Haiti and Miami-based Radio Mega when his bullet-riddled body was found stuffed inside the trunk of his car parked at the entrance of the city of Mirebalais in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.

Rony Célestin, a former senator who represented the farming region, and Lochard Laguere, who still serves as mayor of Mirebalais despite the end of his official term, are being ordered to stand trial before a jury. The investigative judge in the case wants them arrested, accusing them of being some of the masterminds of the slaying.

In a March 8 order that was only recently made public, Judge Edwige Dorsainvil of the Mirebalais Court of First Instance ruled there’s sufficient evidence to charge the two men and six others in the journalist’s assassination.

Under Haitian law, all of those accused have the right to appeal the charges.

Dorsainvil’s years-long investigation also concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Yolette Jeanty, the mother one of the charged suspects , or well-known radio commentator Garry Pierre Paul Charles, in the killing. Charles and Joseph had a tense conversation about 48 hours before the journalist’s body was found. The order said no link was found between Charles and the others charged in the killing.

On Tuesday, a leading human rights group in Haiti, the Eyes Wide Open/La Fondasyon Je Klere welcomed the charges and called for the justice system to do its part, following the work of the investigative judge, who functions like a grand jury in the United States. Haiti ranks among the world’s third-worst offenders on the list of countries where the murders of journalists go unpunished, behind Syria and Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2023 Impunity Index.

The Eyes Wide Open foundation “appreciates the effort made by the Mirebalais justice system to achieve this order, which represents a hope of seeing justice one day put an end to the impunity enjoyed by murderers in this country,” the group said.

The investigation lays out a sordid entanglement involving romantic relationships, betrayal and political machinations unfolding in a quiet rural town where Célestin, one of the country’s most powerful lawmakers and a close collaborator of President Jovenel Moïse, also lived.

In an interview with the Miami Herald Célestin professed his innocence, saying he’s the victim of unfounded accusations spread on social media networks that accused him of killing Joseph because he had asked Moïse to intervene to help bring Joseph’s killer to justice.

“They arrested the killer,” Célestin said, crediting his intervention with the eventual arrest of one of the accused in the Dominican Republic.

Instead of going after people cited by the prosecutor as being responsible, the judge, Célestin said, went after “people who have nothing to do with this dossier, like myself.”

“Everybody in the Central Plateau is shocked, asking how can he do something like this?” Célestin said. He plans to appeal the judge’s order, he said, adding, “I want to know who brought the complaint against me, what did he have as information against me and on what basis he is saying I’m implicated.”

At the time of Joseph’s killing, Haiti was in the throes of escalating violence and protests. Demonstrators were taking to the streets to demand the resignation of Moïse and accountability on nearly $2 billion in post-quake aid that government auditors said had been embezzled. The money was from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe discounted-oil program, and it was supposed to be used after the 2010 earthquake to improve the lives of poor Haitians. Instead, government auditors claimed in several scathing reports, the money was stolen, misappropriated and put into non-existent projects. Moïse was among several government officials implicated, though he denied any wrongdoing.

Still, it all made for news fodder for Joseph, a well-known voice in the region. But as he reported on the anti-government protests and corruption scandals, he rattled politicians.

“In Mirebalais, the political fight raged. Néhémie, as an opinion leader, issued criticism against the mismanagement of local and departmental authorities,” the Eyes Wide Open/La Fondasyon Je Klere said in an eight-page analysis about the judge’s ruling and investigation.

The human-rights group said while there remain unanswered questions in the investigation, the charges are a significant step in addressing the calls from human rights defenders and journalist associations across Haiti who “saw this assassination as a serious attack” on the freedom of opinion and the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate information or ideas without constraint.

“The assassination of journalist Néhémie Joseph is linked to the general climate of intolerance that the country is going through,” the report said. “This is an undeniable and unacceptable attack against the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in Haiti for which the Haitian people have made so many sacrifices.”

The investigation says one of the charged suspects, Angelina Fabiola Cameau, was involved with both Joseph and Juste Chandou Clerjeune, a professional mechanic who worked as a security guard at the mayor’s office and was previously assigned as security in the Haitian Parliament in Port-au-Prince.

Comeau and Joseph were last seen in Joseph’s car shortly before the assassination, the human rights group said.

“In fact he had even stopped in a shop to buy a beer and a coke,” the group said.

Cameau, the group’s report asserts, was on a mission to lead Joseph “to his attackers who subsequently murdered him.”

After the assassination, Clerjeune, 43, fled for the Dominican Republic. He was arrested at the Punta Cana international airport while trying to get to Panama on Jan. 17, 2020. He was eventually handed over to the Mirebalais prosecutor on an Interpol arrest warrant, the human rights group said. He is charged with being the mastermind of the crime. Cameau is currently on the run after also fleeing Haiti for the Dominican Republic.

The investigation claims that the planning of Joseph’s assassination occurred at the Mirebalais Town Hall and involved Laguerre and others close to Célestin, who had been a target of Joseph’s criticisms and whose wealth and business dealings have long been questioned. Last year, in an unrelated matter, Célestin was sanctioned by both the U.S. and Canadian governments.

According to the human rights group, “several witnesses declared to the investigating judge, under oath, that the former senator made death threats” against Joseph. In fact, weeks before his death, Joseph posted on Facebook that he had been threatened by politicians who accused him of inciting the anti-government protests.

Among those who testified before the judge during the inquiry was former senator Willot Joseph.

The judge cited Willot Joseph’s testimony, saying he described the journalist as “a very active youth in politics and in the press as well”. Some of the issues the journalist raised made people happy, while others became mad. Célestin was in the latter category, his fellow parliamentarian testified.

“Rony Célestin, when he was a senator, called me and told me Néhémie is hitting us, there could come a time where we can no longer operate” in the regional department, Willot Joseph is quoted as telling the judge.

Willot Joseph then claimed that Célestin warned him that if he didn’t stop the journalist, he, Célestin, would need to.

“Questioned at the investigating office, former senator Rony Célestin did not deny this conversation with his former colleague, but preferred to declare to the judge of instruction that ‘Willot is an emotional man who must give proof of what he says,’ ” the report noted.

Célestin told the Herald he would like for Willot Joseph, a political nemesis, to produce phone records of their exchange.

“Willot was never my friend, so on what basis would I have called him?” he said, claiming to be a victim of false accusations that led both to sanctions and now murder charges. “As a young man who is involved in politics, I think I am a model.”

Miami Herald

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Posted by on May 10 2024. Filed under International, National. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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