Haiti's president assassination suspects arrested inside Taiwanese embassy

Haiti police presented weapons and some of the detained suspects to the media on Thursday.
PHOTO: Reuters

A group of men believed to have been part of the hit squad that killed Haitian president Jovenel Moise were arrested after they broke into and hid inside Taiwan's embassy on the Caribbean island.

Eleven men suspected of being involved in the assassination were arrested on Thursday after the Taiwanese embassy gave permission to the police to enter the premises, according to a statement published on the embassy's website on Friday.

"Taiwan, as a responsible member of the international community, and a long-time loyal friend and credible partner of the Republic of Haiti, immediately agreed to and authorised the Haitian police to conduct a search to seek justice and ascertain the truth behind the incident as soon as possible," the statement read.

The Haitian police said on Thursday the hit squad was made up of 26 Colombian nationals and two Americans of Haitian origin. The Taiwanese embassy did not state the nationalities of the suspects apprehended on its grounds, located near Moise's residence, where he was shot.

Taiwan's foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said the island's embassy had been closed for security reasons since martial law was imposed following the assassination, and all staff were working from home until further notice.

"In the early morning of July 8, security personnel at the embassy discovered a group of fully armed, suspicious-looking individuals breaking through the security perimeter and entering the courtyard. The security company immediately made emergency calls to notify embassy staff as well as the Haiti police," she said.

In response to a request from the Haiti government, the Taiwanese embassy had immediately agreed to let police enter its premises to conduct a search and make arrests, to ensure that justice prevailed and the facts concerning the incident were brought to light, she stressed.

"The Haiti police commenced an operation at around 4pm on July 8, arresting 11 armed suspects. The operation went smoothly, and the suspects did not resist arrest," Ou said, adding that police had taken the men for investigation.

An initial inspection of the embassy showed some doors and windows had been broken but no other property had been lost or damaged, she said, adding that Taiwan's foreign ministry had instructed the embassy to strengthen security measures and closely monitor subsequent developments.

Haiti is one of 15 countries that recognise Taipei instead of Beijing. Most of these countries are in Latin America and island states in the Pacific.

International law dictates that a host country can only enter a foreign country's diplomatic missions, such as embassies and consulates, after being given explicit permission to do so.

As a result, there have been dozens of cases over several centuries of individuals - from deposed leaders and political dissenters to petty criminals - fleeing to diplomatic missions in a bid to avoid capture by the host country's authorities.

Moise was shot 12 times in the early hours of Wednesday. His wife was flown to Florida after sustaining severe injuries.

While the exact motives behind the murder remain unclear, at least three suspects have been killed, while 17 are under police custody and eight others remain on the run, according to the Haitian authorities.

The Colombian government vowed to assist in the investigation, noting that at least six members of the hit squad appeared to be retired members of its military.

Police stand guard near the private residence of Haiti's President Jovenel Moise after he was shot dead by gunmen with assault rifles, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 7, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

The murder of Moise, who was facing widespread protests calling for his resignation, threatens to plunge the Caribbean island-nation into even greater instability.

While the Haitian constitution mandates that the president of the Supreme Court takes over the reins, he recently died of Covid-19, setting up a conflict between the next incumbent and the interim prime minister.

Ou said the Taiwanese government reiterated its support for interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph in leading Haiti to overcome the crisis and restore democratic order.

Taiwan and Haiti celebrated their 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations in April. On Tuesday, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen welcomed Haiti's new ambassador to Taipei Roudy Stanley Penn, when he presented his credentials to her office.

A car from a funeral parlor drives past the coat of arms of Haiti's presidency while leaving the residential area where Haiti's President Jovenel Moise was shot dead at his private home by gunmen with assault rifles, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 7, 2021. 
PHOTO: Reuters

As soon as the incident was reported, Tsai and her government condemned the assassination of Moise and pledged to "stand in solidarity with Haiti at this difficult time".

The assassination has raised concerns in Taiwan over whether Haiti may break its decades-old formal relations with Taipei. But observers said Haiti was less likely to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has wooed away many of Taipei's allies.

Secretary General of Haiti's presidency Lionel Valbrun gestures after leaving the residential area where Haiti's President Jovenel Moise was shot dead at his private home by gunmen with assault rifles, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 7, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

Yen Chen-shen, a professor with the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said the United States, which has persistently aided the small Caribbean country, would not want to see Beijing's influence in Haiti, which is considered to be in the US backyard.

"The US has already warned Taiwan's allies in Latin America against switching ties to Beijing, and so Taiwan's formal relations with the Caribbean country should remain safe," he said.

"Since the end of the autocratic rule by Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has gone through a series of transfers of power by military and democratic governments, but none had moved to sever formal relations with Taiwan."

Lo Chih-cheng, a scholar-turned legislator of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said the incident would intensify political unrest in Haiti. "But I am sure our government would do all it can to maintain diplomatic ties with Haiti."

This article was first published South China Morning Post.