President of Haiti’s Supreme Court dies of COVID-19

The president of Haiti’s highest court has died, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse confirmed in a tweet Wednesday.

Supreme Court Judge René Sylvestre, who had tested positive for COVID-19, died Wednesday at the University Hospital of Mirebalais.

“The news of the death deeply saddens me, all members of the judiciary,” Moïse said.

He described Sylvestre, who also served as head of the Superior Council of Judicial Power, the administrative arm of the judiciary and its highest state institution, as “a statesman, a faithful servant of the Republic.”

Jacques Letang, president of the Haitian Bar Federation, said Sylvestre’s death presents “a huge institutional crisis,” for the 12-member Supreme Court, now reduced to six and already undergoing a crisis, as well as for the Superior Council of Judicial Power.

Sylvestre, who was 58, is the latest high-profile Haitian personality to succumb to the deadly coronavirus in Haiti, where the government has yet to issue a shot of any COVID-19 vaccine, and a deadly surge is leading to increased infections and deaths. It remains unclear when vaccines will arrive.

A Biden administration official told the Miami Herald last week that the U.S. government is in “active” conversations with the Haitian government on the complexities of delivering a significant number of vaccine doses to the country, including Haiti’s storage capacity and the logistics of shipping the vaccines in proper conditions. The United Nations-backed vaccine-sharing platform, COVAX, was also working to get 132,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to the country. A shipment that was supposed to arrive last week was delayed.

As of June 21 Haiti’s Health Ministry reported 388 deaths from COVID-19 related illnesses and 17,603 registered infections. The numbers are considered an undercount due to a lack of testing, and the availability of coronavirus treatment centers in many parts of the country where the infected have been forced to rely on home remedies and over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms.

An upsurge in gang violence in Port-au-Prince has also added to the challenges, with thousands of people displaced and living in a stadium on the southern edge of the capital and others unable to get to a government-run treatment center in the lower Delmas neighborhood of the capital. Last week, health officials were looking to transfer the few patients at the site to Mirebalais in the central region of the country.

Sylvestre had more than 25 years in the legal profession and served in various capacities, including as deputy prosecutor in the court of first instance of St. Marc, before his appointment to the court. In February 2019 he became president of the Supreme Court, making him also head of the Superior Council of Judicial Power, the highest state judicial institution.

Judge Jean Wilner Morin, president of the National Association of Haitian Magistrates, said the Supreme Court had already lost a judge during the first wave of COVID-19 last year, and with Sylvestre’s death “it’s essentially dysfunctional.” (Another judge was fired and never replaced, Letang said).

Meanwhile, the Superior Council of Judicial Power, which was supposed to welcome new members in early July, is also facing its own crisis given the lack of a president and a Haitian parliament.

In recent months they refused to swear in the new members of the Provisional Electoral Council after they were appointed by Moïse.

Then on Feb. 7, one of the Supreme Court judges, Yvickel Dabrésil, was arrested and jailed as part of a group of 23 alleged “coup plotters.” Another judge, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, was appointed “transitional president” by opposition and civil society groups trying to form a parallel government. Both, along with a third, Wendell Coq, also named by the opposition as a potential provisional president, were fired by Moïse.

Moïse later appointed their replacements without respecting the constitutional procedures, which requires Senate nomination and approval of the judiciary’s administrative arm. The firing and appointments prompted a months-long strike by four judges’ associations critical of the lack of independence of the judiciary and calling for the president to withdraw the order.

The Supreme Court justices’ firing also was denounced by the United States and members of the United Nations Security Council.

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