October 2018 — Belène Alexandre, 31, one of the two supervisory lawyers providing legal assistance at the St. Marc Legal Aid Office, is only too aware of how easy it is for those who can’t afford a lawyer to get lost within the Haitian justice system, and she has made it her life’s work to help them reclaim their rights.
Her small office within the courthouse of St. Marc, a city in central Haiti some 55 miles from Port-au-Prince, has become a beacon of justice for those enduring interminable pre-trial detention in the prisons of Haiti. This office, one of five legal aid offices supported by the USAID Justice Sector Strengthening Project, offers free legal assistance to prisoners in pre-trial detention, filing the necessary motions and pleas that will get them their day in court.
Every day, she works with a team of eight legal assistants — ferrying between the St. Marc penitentiary, the court house, and the state prosecutor’s office — to identify those prisoners who have been in jail for two years or more without a conviction, file the required motions to get them a trial date, represent them in court, and petition for their release when warranted.
“It can be hopeless for people waiting behind bars for a fair chance,” said Alexandre. “There are people sitting in jail for years without ever seeing a judge. Whether guilty or innocent, that is not right. We are working to end that.”
From October 2017 to June 2018, the St. Marc Legal Aid Office assisted a total of 880 beneficiaries, including prisoners, victims of crime, and consultations. During this period, 251 prisoners assisted by the office were freed with or without trial; 78 were convicted after trial.
In August, Alexandre began working on a case involving a young man who had been in jail for petty theft for the last four years without a trial. Had he been convicted, he would have been sentenced to about six months in jail, which means he had already served his sentence four times over. His lengthy incarceration was due to a lost case file. He is still incarcerated and getting him released will require a habeas corpus petition to prove that the case file was indeed lost and that the prisoner is, in fact, still in prison.
This case is hardly the exception. Studies estimate that over 70 percent of inmates in Haitian prisons are in pre-trial detention.
Alexandre’s knowledge of the law and the intricacies of the justice system are essential, but it is her relentless perseverance that makes the real difference. That is because getting the wheels of justice moving in Haiti often requires endless hours spent waiting for a judge’s signature and endless trips between the courthouse and prosecutor’s office. Getting justice requires a dedicated lawyer willing to do the legwork.
Her determination has earned Alexandre the respect of her peers within all the judicial entities and has made her a hero among the inmates who hail her as their last hope whenever she enters the prison.
USAID’s Justice Sector Strengthening Project, which runs from 2016 to 2021, is working to increase Haitian citizens’ access to an open, fair and credible justice system by providing legal assistance to vulnerable populations and working with all stakeholders to strengthen legal, political and regulatory frameworks.