MIAMI (AP) — Four key suspects in the assassination of Haiti’s president made their first appearance in U.S. federal court Wednesday to face charges they planned and participated in his assassination, a day after they were transferred to the United States for prosecution.
Haitian-Americans James Solages, Joseph Vincent and Christian Emmanuel Sanon and Colombian citizen Germán Rivera García looked calm as they entered the federal courthouse in Miami wearing beige prisoner uniforms with their hands and ankles shackled.
They did not speak at the hearing, except to ask for a public defender when Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes asked each of them if they could afford to pay a lawyer.
“I would appreciate it if the court would appoint counsel,” said Solages, the second defendant called by the judge to hear the charges. He, like each of them, answered “no” to the judge’s question whether they had a job, savings or property.
The judge appointed a different lawyer for each of them.
Solages, 37, Vincent, 57, and Rivera, 44, were among the first to be arrested after Jovenel Moïse was shot 12 times on July 7, 2021, at his private home near the capital Port-au-Prince. All three were charged with conspiracy to commit murder or kidnapping outside the US and providing material support and resources resulting in death.
Sanon, a pastor, doctor and failed businessman, 54, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle goods from the United States and failure to file export information, as well as smuggling goods from the United States and providing illegal export information. Court documents say he allegedly sent 20 ballistic vests to Haiti, but the items shipped were described as “medical X-ray vests and school supplies.”
If convicted, Solages, Vincent and Rivera face life in prison. Sanon, whose associates suggested he was duped by the real and still unidentified masterminds of the assassination, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
During the roughly half-hour hearing, prosecutors asked that the four remain in custody in a federal prison, arguing that they are at risk of fleeing the country. The judge set a bond hearing for Monday and an arraignment for February 15.
A total of seven suspects in the case are now in US custody and are facing charges in South Florida for their alleged involvement in the assassination of the Haitian leader. Among them are Rivera and Mario Palacios, two of the nearly two dozen former Colombian soldiers charged in the case.
Other suspects already in US custody include Rodolphe Jaar, a former US government informant and Haitian businessman who was extradited from the Dominican Republic, where he was detained in January 2022.
Also arrested that same month was Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios, a former Colombian soldier who was deported to Jamaica after fleeing Haiti. US officials detained him in Panama during a layover on his way to Colombia.
In January 2022, authorities arrested former Haitian senator John Joël Joseph, who had also fled to Jamaica.
In Haiti, the case practically stalled amid death threats that terrified local judges.
According to court documents, two months before Moïse was killed, Vincent texted Solages a video of a cat “vigilantly responding” to the sound of gunfire. Solages laughed, prompting Vincent to reply, “That’s what Jovenel will be quite like, but (rather) if you guys are really up to it!. That’s when Solages responded that “(this) cat is never coming back” and “trust me bro, we’re definitely working on our final decision,” the documents state.
Later, in June, about 20 former Colombian soldiers were recruited to allegedly help arrest the president and protect Sanon, who fancied himself the new leader of Haiti. Rivera was in charge of that group, according to documents that are part of the South Florida case.
Authorities said the plan was to detain Moïse and fly him to an unidentified location, but that plot failed when the suspects could not find a plane or enough weapons.
The day before the assassination, Solages falsely told the other suspects that it was a CIA operation and that the mission was to kill the president, according to the documents. Just before the assassination, authorities said, Solages shouted that it was allegedly a DEA operation to ensure compliance with the presidential security detail.
About a year after the murder, U.S. authorities say they interviewed Solages, Vincent and Rivera while they were in custody in Haiti and that they agreed to be interviewed.
Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan contributed to this report.