April 20, 2015 / 8:27 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. 'concerned' about ruling in Haiti kidnapping case

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The Obama administration said it was “concerned” about the speed of a court ruling in Haiti that saw charges suddenly dropped in the indictment of an accused kidnapper with close ties to the family of President Michel Martelly.

On Friday, the judge freed Woodly Ethéart and Renel Nelfort, two leaders of the so-called Galil Gang, who had been indicted a month earlier for masterminding a host of violent crimes, including murder, money laundering and more than a dozen kidnappings.

Two days later, the Minister of Justice sacked the prosecutor, saying his deputies asked the judge to free the men, arguing they could not win a conviction.

“We are concerned about the ruling, including the speed in which it was made,” a State Department spokesman said in an email on Monday in response to a request for comment.

“This is an ongoing case in the Haitian courts, and we understand the ruling could be appealed.

Ethéart, who is a friend of Martelly’s brother-in-law, Charles Saint-Rémy, is known by the street name ‘Sonson Lafamilia,’ and is the former owner of one of Haiti’s fanciest restaurants, La Souvenance.

“The prosecutor in Port au Prince was removed because the government was not satisfied with the performance at the trial,” Peguy Jean, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said on Monday. “At the end of the trial, the prosecutors asked the charges to be dropped.”

The release of Ethéart immediately raised questions about the handling of the case, with some Haitians suggesting he was let off because of the close relationship with the president’s family.

“The move (to free them) absolutely came from the top,” argued Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network. He accused the judge, Lamarre Bélizaire, of corruption, saying he frequently rules in favor of the Martelly government.

The Galil Gang made nearly $2 million dollars from kidnapping ransoms in a two year period, said lawyer Newton Louis Saint-Juste, who testified in the case.

“Of course I’m scared. This exposes all the victims and all the witnesses to the Galil Gang,” said Saint-Juste, an outspoken critic of the Martelly government.

Martelly’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ministry of Justice has until Tuesday to appeal the tossed indictment. If no appeal is filed, government critics say it will be a sign the Ministry of Justice is doing favors for the president.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington. Editing by David Adams and Christian Plumb

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