In gang-ridden Haiti, going to court has become so dangerous for lawyers that they avoid it altogether: In a lower-level court, no hearing or trial has taken place for months.
“In February, we had seven kidnappings in our ranks and a lawyer killed,” Marie Suzy Legros, president of the Port-au-Prince bar, told AFP.
Legros was among dozens of robed lawyers who demonstrated outside the home of Prime Minister Ariel Henry on Friday to complain about the crime targeting lawyers in a destitute and chaotic Haiti.
Read also | Journalist killed, two others injured as Haitian police open fire on protesters
Moving the Palais de Justice is one of their main demands. Few lawyers even dare to visit this court complex because it sits right next to a slum dominated by Haiti’s most powerful gangs.
For years, the gangs were based in these poorer neighborhoods by the sea in Port-au-Prince. But over time, they grew in power and spread across the city and country, staging more and more murders and kidnappings for ransom.
Haitian lawyers are therefore exasperated and feel additional frustration with a legal system that lacks the resources to function properly.
A court attacked by gangs
Responding to the request to move the court building, the government said it would create a kind of security corridor manned by the security forces so that lawyers could actually go to court. But that idea never really took off.
“Sometimes gang members enter the courthouse looking for accomplices or brothers, depending on their name, to help them escape,” Legros added.
Watch | Cargo plane splits in 2 during emergency landing
With the justice system so crippled, overcrowding in Haiti’s prisons – among the highest in the world – is getting even worse.
The prison system can accommodate 3,000 inmates but holds more than 11,200, 80% of whom are simply awaiting trial, and some of them for years, according to prison officials. And the living conditions are deplorable.
Low salary, corruption
The justice system will suffer another blow next week when court clerks go on an indefinite strike.
“Our working conditions are precarious in Haiti. There is no equipment, no computers. In some courts, there is not even paper,” said Aine Martin, president of an association national court clerks.
Read also | The Dominican Republic begins to build a border wall with Haiti
Martin said the pay was low — in the trial courts, at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy, as low as $150 a month.
“You can’t live on that kind of salary and that’s why there’s so much corruption plaguing the Haitian justice system,” Martin said.
And the decrepit physical state of the courts defies belief.
“Because the gutters are clogged, when it rains, the water with the garbage flows into the court. Lawyers’ offices are sometimes flooded and there are files that cannot be saved,” Legros said.
The Palais de Justice collapsed in the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti.
Read also | In Haiti, garment workers demonstrate to demand higher wages
“We laid the groundwork for a new courthouse in 2016, but since then nothing has been done,” Legros said.
“Without a court, the feeling of impunity grows and without justice, there is no country,” she added.
Legros knows all too well how slowly the wheels of justice turn here. She took over the Port-au-Prince bar when her well-known predecessor, Monferrier Dorval, was shot and killed outside his home in August 2020.
To date, no arrests have been made in this case.
Even the investigation into the murder of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021 is going nowhere.
A fourth investigating judge was appointed to the case in March, but a month later that judge said he had not even received the case file or any means to work with.