WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haitian National policeman Pascal Alexandre is a free man -- for now -- after being conditionally released Friday from the National Penitentiary, where he had been held for nearly five months, after violent protests by a rogue police group calling for his freedom.
Alexandre, who is a member of the national police's anti-drug force, was arrested May 8 and accused of assault with a deadly weapon and destruction of public property. He was arrested after an altercation between the rogue police group Fantom 509 and a member of the elite Special Weapons and Tactics force (SWAT), during which the SWAT officer was allegedly disarmed and forced into a vehicle.
Alexandre, wearing a dark gray T-shirt and face mask as he left the Port-au-Prince court where he was arraigned, was accompanied by his lawyer, Andre Michel.
Michel told reporters the judge agreed to release his client on the condition that he make himself available to respond to any questions that may arise and to appear in court, if necessary, in the coming weeks.
"Pascal Alexandre is a lucky man because he appeared before an independent judge, a courageous judge, an honest judge, a judge who knows his job," the lawyer said. "After examining the case and the accusations against him, the judge agreed that they were groundless, a veritable tempest in a teapot."
Many Haitians distrust the judicial system, alleging that most of its judges are corrupt.
Haiti's National Police force has also struggled to improve its image, investing in training and equipment, partially financed by the United States.
The Trump administration has requested $128.2 million in assistance for Haiti in fiscal year 2021, intended to "foster the institutions and infrastructure necessary to achieve strong democratic foundations and meaningful poverty reduction" according to a Congressional Research Service report.
In August, David Mosby, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti's director for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, met with PNH head Normil Rameau to discuss strategic priorities, including gang violence, plans for new recruits, and U.S. support for community policing, anti-drug efforts and border patrol.
News of Alexandre's release was welcomed by dozens of fellow officers, family members and well-wishers who filled the streets of the capital to celebrate by beating drums, blowing horns and waving flags.
"I'd like to thank the people and my soul brothers (policemen) who helped me gain this freedom," Alexandre told those who had gathered to welcome him home in the Delmas 34 neighborhood where he lives. "I'm happy to be back in my neighborhood and back with my family."
Neighborhood resident rapper 222 Flow told VOA Alexandre is beloved.
"We say welcome (back) Pascal. He is our leader -- that's what we want a man of the people, a native," 222 Flow said.
The policeman's release was a key demand during a series violent protests orchestrated by Fantom 509 (Ghosts of 509, which is the area code for Haiti) in the Haitian capital earlier this month. The group claims to represent officers who have died in the line of duty and says their goal is to correct injustices.
The group, armed with high-powered weapons, has orchestrated several violent street protests, demanding justice.
Among state buildings targeted in their most recent protests, September 12-14, were the Immigration Service, the newly constructed National Identification Office (ONI), which distributes the ID cards required for bank transactions, property purchases, travel and other official matters. Government vehicles including garbage trucks were also damaged.
During the September 12 protest, members of Fantom 509 fired at the home of chief prosecutor Ducarmel Gabriel to demand the release of four fellow police officers charged with dereliction of duty. They had been accused of failing to secure the crime scene in the home where Port-au-Prince bar association chief Monferrier Dorval was slain.
Dorval's home was ransacked, and potentially valuable evidence was destroyed, according to the lead investigator. A short time after the shooting incident, the four officers were released from jail.
During a September 14 protest, VOA asked one of the Fantom 509 officers what sparked their rampage.
"We're fighting for our brother's freedom," the policeman, dressed in uniform and wearing a facemask, told VOA Creole. "That's why each time we hit the streets and our demands are not met by officials, we will hold them responsible (for whatever happens). We will keep this up until Pascal Alexandre is free. Wherever we see injustices - we will respond with civil disobedience."
Fantom 509 threatened during the September 14 protest to burn the capital city down to the ground if Alexandre was not released. When VOA Creole asked them why they were resorting to violence rather than petitioning the minister of justice, they responded that their colleague was unjustly arrested, so that "is not an option."
"The government had Pascal arrested, so we are dealing directly with the government," the officer told VOA.