PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — One of Haiti’s top prosecutors sought charges against Prime Minister Ariel Henry in connection with the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, adding new uncertainty to a nation reeling from political instability, gang violence and the aftermath of a major earthquake.
The developments in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday suggested a power struggle between bitter rival factions vying to fill the political vacuum left in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation by Moïse’s killing.
Port-au-Prince prosecutor Bed-Ford Claude asked a judge to charge Henry and bar him from leaving the country, after Henry failed to show up for questioning. He said Henry had been in telephone contact with a chief suspect in the case — Joseph Felix Badio, a former government official — in the hours after the July 7 slaying, according to a copy of the two-page indictment request.
In a letter circulated Tuesday — but dated on Monday — the prime minister fired Claude. It remained unclear whether Claude’s request for Henry’s indictment occurred before or after the termination letter was sent. A new prosecutor for Port-au-Prince was named on Tuesday.
Some claimed that Henry’s enemies were using the judicial system to try to thwart the prime minister’s attempts to forge a unity government with some members of the political opposition. Henry is considered an outsider among Moïse’s former lieutenants, and a deal he struck with the opposition on Saturday might have meant ousting key ministers who had been close to Moïse.
The allegations against Henry nevertheless amount to a new twist in the complex investigation of the assassination, and they are expected to fuel renewed calls for an independent caretaker government at a time when gang violence is again rising.
Henry “has been in his position for more than a month, and there is no vision or leadership or real action taken to change the dire situation of the country,” said James Beltis, an anticorruption activist. “Adding to that, his name is implicated in this assassination scandal. That’s another reason for him to leave power.”
Haiti is struggling with the aftermath of an earthquake last month that killed more than 2,200 people. Hard-hit communities say not enough is being done to aid them.
Henry, Moïse’s choice for prime minister before his death, emerged from an earlier power struggle within the slain president’s inner circle to take the office a week and half after the assassination, with the backing of the international community. Claude sought Henry’s indictment on charges including assassination, conspiracy against the state and armed robbery.
“There are enough compromised elements against the prime minister to indict him, pure and simple,” Claude wrote.
Henry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Investigating judge Garry Orelien on Monday called the slain president’s widow, former first lady Martine Moïse, to appear for questioning. He did not provide a reason.
Claude’s request that Henry be charged came three days after the prime minister reached a power-sharing deal with some of the political opposition. Under the agreement, Henry would set up a new unity government in the coming days to lead the nation until elections that would be held no later than the end of 2022. He was the only one in the current cabinet guaranteed a job in the unity government.
Some described Claude’s request for charges, based on two phone calls Henry allegedly had with Badio on July 7, the contents of which prosecutors did not appear to have knowledge of, as a last-ditch effort by Henry’s political rivals to foil that deal.
“The prosecutor grossly exceeded his mandate,” said Pierre Espérance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network. “This is about a struggle for power for who will rule Haiti. I am not a fan of Ariel Henry, but I cannot support and I must condemn those who would use the judicial system in this way.”
Claude did not respond to a request for comment.
In the document requesting charges, Claude said the telephone calls lasted a total of seven minutes and were pinpointed to locations near the president’s estate, where he was assassinated, and the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. He also noted that a member of Henry’s cabinet said the prime minister had denied speaking with Badio that night.
Claude’s request is not an indictment. Rather, under Haitian law, the investigating judge can decide whether to act on the prosecutor’s request to press charges. The force of the request remained in doubt following Henry’s move to fire Claude on Tuesday.
The Moïse assassination remains one of the world’s most mysterious whodunits. The president was shot to death after a team of armed men descended on his home early on July 7. The investigation has been laden with claims and counterclaims of plots, turncoats and foreign guns for hire. Haitian authorities have invited international experts including the FBI to aid in the probe and are detaining 44 people in connection with the plot. They include Haitian police officers, presidential guards and former members of the Colombian military.
Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon, was named prime minister by Moïse two days before his slaying. In the hours after the shooting, he told The Washington Post in July, he feared “for his life.” He said Claude Joseph, the outgoing prime minister, was seeking to usurp him.
The two men later reached an agreement in which Henry, backed by the United States and European powers, became interim leader. But civil society groups have insisted that an independent caretaker government should lead the country toward elections.
Haitian and Colombian officials have called Badio a key suspect in the president’s killing. Two months before the assassination, Badio was fired from his job in the Haitian government’s anti-corruption unit. Colombian officials in mid-July said that evidence had emerged suggesting that Badio had given the assassination order to two Colombians. He has been in hiding since the killing.
Marie Rosy Kesner Auguste Ducena, program manager with the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said Claude’s request for charges appeared to be based on minimal evidence.
“We are skeptical regarding the latest development,” she said. “There are a lot of people who were in communication with Joseph Felix Badio. But we are under the impression that Haitian authorities are not talking about them. We see all eyes on Ariel Henry, but Ariel is not the only one who had communication with Badio.”
Faiola reported from Miami.