Setting Captives Free: Legal Ministry in Haiti
In mid-2015, Amizial Rene was arrested on the basis of a friend’s accusation.
It happened unexpectedly. For seven years, Amizial, a long-time resident of Port-au-Prince, sold cooking charcoal from a roadside perch beside his friend. One day, the other seller had 19 sacks of charcoal stolen and assumed Amizial was the culprit. He went to the police, made his accusation, and Amizial was swiftly arrested and placed in a prison to await trial.
For Amizial, this was his first brush with the law and the beginning of a prolonged period of detention in Haiti’s suffocatingly overcrowded prisons. Detainees can wait months for a preliminary hearing, and are meanwhile mixed with convicted inmates and given limited access to clean water, food, and health care. While housed in the Croix-des-Bouquets prison, Amizial developed a problem with his prostate and began experiencing severe pain that coursed up and down the left side of his body from standing for hours on ends because inmates are forced to take turns standing and sleeping owing to limited floor space.
After several months, Amizial finally appeared before a magistrate at the local tribunal. His accuser was unable to present any evidence to prove Amizial’s guilt, and as a result he was judged not guilty. While one might expect this to be the end of Amizial’s ordeal, that is not how the Haitian system operates. Without payment of a fee to the court of over U.S. $100, in addition to paying for an expensive lawyer, his judgment would not be transmitted to the prison authorities who could set him free. During this time, no one besides Amizial’s wife and children, were aware he was incarcerated, and no one was able to help him. Amizial returned to detention without hope of release, simply because he was poor.
Amizial’s case highlights a number of troubling aspects of the Haitian justice system, including how the poor are preyed upon, and the physical and psychological toll of indefinite detention lived under inhumane conditions. But it also highlights the need for advocates who are willing to intercede and protect the rights of poor detainees and inmates.
Not long ago, I met Amizial in his sister’s darkened, cramped two-room home, and he shared his story of imprisonment and release. That’s right: after a year and a half in detention, Amizial is finally free. What took him from his dark days in prison to being reunited with his children is a story that involves my combined efforts along with Haitian Christian lawyers over several years to build a voluntary organization to aid clients like Amizial in their time of need.
Legal Aid as Ministry
I am an American lawyer who served with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Port-au-Prince alongside my wife doing advocacy work for the past three years. Before I became a service worker with MCC, I was a staff attorney at Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia (CLCP), a legal ministry that drew upon the work of volunteer Christian attorneys to meet our neighbors’ legal and spiritual needs.
People often need legal help when they are at the end of their rope: a family member is in jail, an eviction order looms, or a bewildering tax situation overwhelms. Clients reach out because they know their legal issue will not go away and they need help only a lawyer can provide. I was often in awe at CLCP as I observed fellow lawyers, paralegals, and law students serve gratefully month after month, eschewing images of the stereotypical lawyer who is removed, impatient, and only self-interested. There, lawyers were counselors and defenders, friends and ministers of the Gospel.
During my first six months of service with MCC in Haiti, I couldn’t help but wonder: was this model of legal ministry and service possible in Haiti?
Years in the Making
The challenges in Haiti for lawyers are many. Like their American counterparts, Haitian lawyers resemble many of the stereotypes associated with the profession. Financial pressures are even more exaggerated in Haiti because opportunities are few and competition for work is stiff. This has led to a dearth of pro bono volunteer work done in the country despite the overwhelming need.
In 2014, I brought the idea for a Christian lawyers association that could offer pro bono services to Siméon Jean, a Haitian pastor friend who was very nearly finished with his legal studies. He had another close friend, Siméon Valet, a young lawyer training to be a pastor, who had past experience freeing clients caught in prolonged detention. They were excited by the idea and passionate about marrying their two vocations by bringing Christian lawyers together around a common call to serve and do justice in the name of Christ.
We decided to run with the idea. Thanks to MCC’s support, we were able to.
Laying the Groundwork
MCC has occupied a unique role supporting Haitian civil society in the last twenty years through its close support of human rights organizations and grassroots movements. MCC is respected among its partners, and these long-enduring relationships provided our trio the opportunity to meet with leading human rights figures and seek their input. As our vision continued to crystallize, we came to see the many steps necessary to incubate the new organization and its work: convening interested parties, forming a board, writing organizational bylaws and getting them approved by the Haitian government. Eventually, this long phase of discernment and relationship-building enabled the launch of the Alliance Chretienne pour la Justice (ACJ), or, in English, the Christian Justice Alliance, in late 2016.
ACJ mobilizes and trains volunteer Christian lawyers to provide direct legal services to individuals in detention with relatively straight-forward, low-level offenses or accusations. Because of the tremendous need, ACJ has started by prioritizing serving detainees and inmates who are fathers so that each person’s release helps reunify a family. Because ACJ understands its work as ministry, the ACJ lawyers also offer to re-connect freed detainees and inmates with their churches, or, if they don’t have a church, put them in touch with a local pastor who can try to further support their reintegration into the community.
The work has been moving swiftly, and within the first few months of their MCC-funded pilot project, their group of 12 volunteers have helped free 28 men, including Amizial. Thanks to the dedication of these volunteer lawyers and lean management, it ends up costing less than $150 total for every person set free.
Amizial’s Release and ACJ’s Future
After the ACJ lawyers met with Amizial in prison, it didn’t take long to advance his case and secure his release. He was overjoyed, but he has a long road ahead. Amizial wants to do all he can to get his health back, return to work, and be a supportive father to his five children.
ACJ hopes to continue its work freeing and ministering to individuals in prolonged pre-trial detention. It plans to recruit more volunteer attorneys and serve fathers and mothers in other prisons around Port-au-Prince and eventually in more remote communities. As it grows, ACJ will also offer community legal education through churches and commit to advocacy work, serving as a Christian voice in the public square for much-needed justice reform.
The Potential of International Service
During my term with MCC, I was fortunate to work in coalition on many important advocacy initiatives, but possibly the most gratifying experience was seeing how my contribution to ACJ is having tremendous individual impact through freeing individuals and reuniting families. ACJ and its growing work are a perfect example of how international service and exchange can dynamize change, and an exciting way for MCC and its supporters to live out the biblical call to visit prisoners and help set captives free.
Ted Oswald is an MCC Haiti alumni who served as the Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinator along with his wife Katharine, from 2014-2016. From California, he continued his studies in forced migration studies in Cairo, Egypt and law in Philadelphia, PA. He is a licensed attorney and the author of the Libète Limyè Mysteries, a series of novels set in present-day Haiti.