In the photos, a dozen men lie face down in the middle of a narrow road. Many have grey hair, some are without shirts and have their wrists bound with zip-ties. In front of them is a pile of their alleged belongings, including several rusted assault rifles, stacks of cash bills, and a lone machete.
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, flanked by members of the police force in a speech streamed live on Facebook, said later that day that those under arrest had attempted to overthrow his government and assassinate him in the process. He accused twenty-three members of the opposition of plotting against him, including the Inspector General of the National Police and Ivickel Dabrésil, a judge on Haiti’s highest court. Moïse claimed the judge was aiming to succeed him after the coup.
The incident, which happened early on February 7, is the latest in a tenuous political situation that has moved from a simmer to a boil in recent weeks, as protests, kidnappings for ransom by government-backed gangs, and violence in the streets swell. Moïse has been ruling by decree for a year since he dissolved the Haitian Parliament and failed to call new elections.
Opposition leaders claim Moïse is an illegitimate president, according to the term limits outlined in the nation’s constitution. The president has declared plans to amend the constitution this year, hoping to expand his powers and remain in office for another term. But many see the events of this weekend not as a coup-attempt but rather a power-grab, a camouflaged effort to arrest the most powerful members of the opposition movement in one neat sweep.
After the arrests, the Young Bar Association of Port-Au-Prince released a statement decrying the “kidnapping” of Dabrésil. The National Association of Haitian Magistrates published a separate statement attesting that heavily-armed men were harassing judges, and implored all in the legal profession to “defend the integrity of the judiciary.”
Last month, Moïse was accused of personally pressuring local police to arrest another political opponent, former Senator Nenél Cassy. Several kidnappings of prominent figures in the past year, including that of the wife of the head of security at the National Palace, were performed allegedly by gangs with financial ties to Moïse’s government.
After news of the arrests, protesters clashed with police, engulfed in billows of tear gas in the capital Port au Prince. The next day, gang members arrived armed with assault rifles to clear the streets of protesters, shouting their support for Moïse.
Doubt lingered about whether the group in the pictures would have been planning to carry out a coup with such limited weaponry. Memes spread through opposition circles on Facebook and Twitter displaying plastic butter knives with the caption “attempted coup d’etat.”
Béré Buteau, whose parents were both arrested, published an emotional plea on Twitter. “My father Louis Buteau [agronomist], my mother Marie-Antoinette Gautier [doctor-surgeon] and my aunt Marie-Louise Gautier [an executive in the Haitian National Police] were kidnapped. We ask for the release of our family and all those illegally seized on February 7, 2021. We reject the allegations and strongly condemn these illegal acts.”
Despite the United States’ Department of State’s support of Moïse completing another year in office, several members of the U.S. Congress expressed reservations about the validity of his coup claim, including Congressman Andy Levin who said on Twitter, “With no evidence to support his claims of a conspiracy against his life, Moïse is demonstrating what my colleagues and I have said: there is zero chance of real elections, real democracy or real accountability while he remains in power.”
“If the current situation is any indication,” another year under Moïse would involve “a lot of repression and worsening living conditions for the poor majority,” Mark Schuller, president of the Haitian Studies Association told VICE World News.
Irvikel Dabrésil and the other twenty-two alleged conspirators remain in police custody. Opposition leaders rushed to set up a parallel government and choose another candidate for interim president to replace Moïse immediately, settling on Joseph Mecène Jean Louis, another judge.
In a public address later in the day, President Moïse said, “I was supposed to leave, I’m still here. If you guys keep fighting me, I guarantee you that I will win.”