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Backers spring Haiti lawyer in corruption cases

Wednesday - 10/23/2013, 9:50pm  ET

TRENTON DANIEL
Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Supporters of an opposition figure who has brought corruption cases against Haiti's government whisked him away from a courthouse Wednesday as he awaited a hearing after being detained by police.

Attorney Andre Michel was meeting with a judge and prosecutor when supporters broke into the courtroom office and pushed him past police and security guards to the bar association's office near the courthouse.

Shortly afterward, legislator Arnel Belizaire and other supporters put Michel into a black SUV with tinted windows and official license plates. The car drove down the street to Parliament, which was closed to journalists.

Haitian law bars police from stopping cars with official license plates.

Michel was taken away from the courthouse as the judge prepared to serve an order that he be transferred to the state penitentiary.

The government issued a statement Wednesday night condemning the removal of Michel from the courthouse. It called that action "a serious interference and a flagrant violation of the principle of separation of powers."

Prosecutors did not say publicly why Michel was arrested.

But Marie Yolene Gilles, assistant program director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, a civil rights group, said that she saw the police record against Michel and that he initially was stopped because of a minor traffic violation. It wasn't clear how she got to look at the papers.

The detention of the prominent lawyer prompted Senate President Simon Dieuseul Desras, a critic of President Michel Martelly, to call for an emergency session of legislators to discuss the arrest.

Michel is one of the few attorneys in Haiti who takes on legal cases critical of Martelly's government, and he also has taken a case involving a student fatally shot by police.

Michel serves as secretary-general of a coalition of opposition political parties called Group 77.

Dozens of his supporters shut down several blocks in downtown Port-au-Prince by putting up burning barricades and forcing truck drivers to abandon their vehicles in the street.

Supporters also showed up at the courthouse and demanded the president's resignation as riot police stood guard.

"What happened to Michel was not an arrest -- it was a kidnapping," Sen. Pierre Francky Exius told reporters.

This is not the first time that Haiti's executive branch has faced accusations of intervening in the judiciary. Two years ago, Belizaire, the deputy who accompanied Michel into the SUV, was locked up by police even though he enjoys immunity as a lawmaker.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Martelly on Wednesday and the two talked about Haiti's legislative and local elections, now two years overdue, and the need to maintain a "strong and independent legislative branch," according to a government statement.

It didn't mention Michel's detention.

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Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.


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