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‘Powerful enemies’: Did a prosecutor order the murder of Haitian journalist Garry Tesse?

Haitian journalist Garry Tesse was on his way to work at a local radio station in the southern city of Les Cayes when he disappeared shortly after exiting a taxi. His naked and disfigured corpse was found six days later face down on the seashore close to downtown. One of his eyes was gouged out,…

Haitian journalist Garry Tesse was on his way to work at a local radio station in the southern city of Les Cayes when he disappeared shortly after exiting a taxi. His naked and disfigured corpse was found six days later face down on the seashore close to downtown. One of his eyes was gouged out, his tongue was cut off, and his body was partially burned.

Haitian journalist Garry Tesse (Photo: Courtesy of Tesse family)

The October 2022 murder sparked outrage and street protests. But the investigation into the death of the popular 39-year-old radio journalist has languished, leading his family and friends to accuse the government of a cover-up to protect the man who is in charge of prosecuting the crime, Ronald Richemond. Tesse had gone on his radio show to accuse Richemond, an influential local prosecutor and political appointee, of plotting to have him killed weeks before the murder. Now, a former member of Richemond’s security team has provided new details on the alleged plot.

Lire ce rapport en français sur l’AyiboPost

Three days after Tesse’s dead body was discovered, Richemond issued a video statement on Facebook in which he rejected the accusations against him. “The rumors circulating that it was me who killed Garry Tesse are false,” he said, adding that he would seek justice for the journalist and his family. To date, Richemond has not been charged with any crime. But his controversial handling of the case, which involved the arrest of another local journalist, has led to calls for a full investigation from local media organizations and the country’s public ombudsman.

CPJ contacted Richemond over text and social media multiple times with a list of questions, including whether he ordered the journalist’s murder. He never responded, nor did he answer several phone calls. Guy Delva, president of Haitian group SOS Journalistes, said he spoke with Richemond last year and that the prosecutor again rejected claims of his involvement in Tesse’s killing. 

“This case must be resolved as soon as possible. A message urgently needs to be sent to prevent this chronic impunity from triggering more crimes against journalists,” said Delva, who has investigated the case.

Where impunity reigns

Even in a country that has slid into virtual lawlessness and gang rule following the assassination of the country’s president in 2021 – a state of affairs that prompted the March 12 resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry – Tesse’s case has shocked local journalists and lawyers accustomed to attacks on reporters being carried out with impunity.

The case exemplifies a long-running problem in Haiti’s justice system, experts say, pointing to a low conviction rate as investigations are snarled by political influence and crime is allowed to fester.

“The Haitian system has always been in the hands of one faction or another of the political class, or those with money,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. “It’s a justice system within a mafioso system,” he told CPJ. Fatton pointed to the notorious case of journalist Jean Léopold Dominique, who was murdered at the gates of his radio station in 2000. It took 14 years to identify his killers, but a mastermind was never arrested.

In February, a judge indicted 51 people for conspiring in the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, including his wife, Martine Moïse, but failed to identify the motive or who ordered it. Critics accuse the government of meddling in the investigation to hide its own complicity.

“There are judges occasionally who try to do the right thing, but they usually end up being fired or sometimes killed,” said Fatton.

Tesse’s critical reporting

The son of a rice farmer, Tesse was well read and liked to dress in a jacket, tie, and simple trilby-style hat. He was also a thorn in the side of local authorities for persistently denouncing alleged corruption and abuse of power. “Haiti lost an elegant man, a good man who only wanted to help others,” his widow, Yvana Despagne Tesse, 35, told CPJ.

Tesse’s radio broadcasts criticizing the bureaucracy of Les Cayes, the most populous city in Haiti’s south-west peninsula, made him into a local celebrity. He was also a lawyer and admired for his courage in speaking out for Haiti’s downtrodden masses, as well as the caustic tongue lashings he meted out to local officials.

“He stood up for the people who have no voice, the least fortunate who the government ignores,” said his younger brother, Vano Tesse. “He was an honest man who described things the way they are. Some people didn’t like that, so he created powerful enemies,” he added.

Garry Tesse accused Ronald Richemond, a prosecutor in Les Cayes, seen here in a local promotional video in 2023, of planning to kill him weeks before he was murdered. (Screenshot: PREMIER NIVEAU/YouTube)

Tesse regularly accused local officials of corruption, including arbitrary arrests and taking bribes to fix property disputes. He was especially critical of Richemond, the city’s powerful prosecutor (“Commissaire de Gouvernement”), often singling him out on his midday radio show “Gran Lakou,” (Haitian Creole for “Big Yard”) on Radio Le Bon FM.

Tesse’s brother and a local journalist told CPJ that Tesse also represented gasoline merchants in a dispute with Richemond in 2020, when local authorities cracked down on unlicensed street sales of gasoline. “Richemond controls everything here in the south of Haiti. He acts as though he is above the law,” said Vano Tesse.

Richemond also had a reputation for cracking down on crime. According to Delva, many in Les Cayes credited him with efforts to stem gang violence that swept the country after Moïse’s death. But critics have accused the prosecutor of overstepping his authority and taking the law into his own hands. His actions led to a rare reprimand from Haiti’s Minister of Justice late last year over allegations of improper behavior in a territorial dispute with another controversial prosecutor for a neighboring jurisdiction.

In a strongly worded letter, the minister Emmelie Prophète, said she was “appalled” by Richemond’s behavior, citing his “invectives, in the media” against a fellow prosecutor. She concluded by warning him that “no additional blunders will be tolerated in the accomplishment of your duties.”

An alleged plot to kill

On October 18, 2022, Tesse left his house in the town of Cavaillon about 12 miles east of Les Cayes at about 10 a.m. to head to the radio station. He shared a ride aboard a pick-up taxi, got a phone call en route, and was dropped off on the outskirts of the city, according to his lawyer, citing witnesses.

That was the last time anyone spoke to him. When he failed to show up at Radio Le Bon his colleagues called his phone but there was no answer.

“We knew right away something was wrong as he was very good about returning calls,” Charles Boyer, his co-host on Gran Lakou, told CPJ.

When his brutalized body was found a week later, public anger turned on Richemond, and some residents marched on a property he owned, according to a local media report.

Before his death, Tesse had received overtures from Richemond to tone down his public criticism of the prosecutor in return for money, according to his lawyer.

“He sent people to try to negotiate a bribe, to shut him up,” Anthony Cyrion, the attorney for Tesse’s family, told CPJ.

Shortly before his death, Tesse had gone on radio to denounce an alleged plot by Richemond to have him killed. According to his friends and family, Tesse’s source was a former member of the prosecutor’s security team, Ricardo Bain, who was also a friend of the journalist. Bain resigned from his job in protest over what he described as the prosecutor’s “criminal” activity, according to the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), a prominent human rights group in Haiti, which provided its unpublished investigation on the case to CPJ.

Bain was arrested the day after Tesse’s disappearance, accused of slandering the prosecutor. He remains in jail and CPJ has not been able to contact him.

However, Bain recently accused Richemond of ordering the killing in a recorded phone interview from jail with SOS Journalistes in February.

“It was Richemond who planned the assassination,” Bain said in the recording, which CPJ obtained. CPJ could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording, but people who know Bain said that the voice appeared to be his. Bain’s account is also consistent with what Tesse’s family said Bain told them.

Bain noted that he had worked for Richemond for several years and was originally impressed by his efforts to tackle criminal gangs. But gradually he became aware of what he described as illegal activities in the prosecutor’s office.

Bain was also a close friend of Tesse, describing him as “like my brother” and supportive of his efforts to denounce local corruption.

“He [was] very passionate on the radio,” he said, adding that Tesse’s program was “intense, and many people [listened] to it.”

Bain told SOS that the alleged murder plot was hatched in May 2022, when Richemond attempted to recruit Bain, along with three other members of his staff, to kill Tesse. At first, Bain said, he played along with the conspiracy to try and protect his friend. At the same time, he warned Tesse that his life was in danger. He said he even attempted to abort the plot by offering to try and bribe Tesse in return for ceasing his attacks on the prosecutor.

But Tesse refused to back down. “He told me, ‘I wouldn’t take a dime from Richemond who is doing a lot of bad things in this city. That would be like supporting him in all his criminal activities.’”

Suspects arrested

Tesse’s family say local residents reported seeing him being taken by his kidnappers on a motorcycle to an area of shipping containers where his mutilated corpse was later found. According to Tesse’s lawyer, residents identified one of his kidnappers as Wilkens Thiogène, one of Richemond’s security team. Thiogène was subsequently arrested as a suspect in the murder, though never formally charged. He has since disappeared and CPJ was unable to reach him for comment.

Tesse’s widow and colleagues told CPJ that they also began to receive threats when they took to the radio to denounce Richemond. At least one person showed up outside Tesse’s house firing weapons in the air. “I didn’t dare leave the house for days,” said his widow, who wasn’t able to identify the source of the gunshots.

Tesse’s friend and fellow journalist, Guerlan Hyppolite, was especially vocal on the radio in demanding justice for Tesse, and accused Richemond of orchestrating Tesse’s killing during a November 2022 march through the streets of Les Cayes. 

Hyppolite says Richemond also tried to silence him with bribes. Hyppolite went into hiding but was arrested in late 2022 as a suspect in the murder of his friend. “They tried to negotiate with me too, that’s why I was arrested. I said I won’t negotiate with a vagabond like him,” Hyppolite told CPJ.

The Tesse family refused to back down and in June 2023 went before the judge handling the investigation, Robert Jourdain, to accuse Richemond of ordering the murder.

“We are determined to seek justice for Gary Tesse who was killed to silence a voice that spoke for the people,” Cyrion, the family’s attorney, said.

The family named Thiogène and two other members of Richemond’s security team as the suspected killers.

When Jourdain summoned members of the prosecutor’s security team to testify, they ignored the summons, according to three CPJ sources.

Hyppolite was released in October 2023 after the judge found no evidence implicating him in the murder. Thiogène was also released on the same day. CPJ obtained copies of the two orders releasing Hyppolite and Thiogène, both bearing judge Jourdain’s signature. However, the judge told CPJ that he did not sign the order releasing Thiogène.

“If this order was fabricated it’s a shocking violation of the legal system,” said Cyrion. “Only the judge has the authority to free people. We are tired of asking the government to intervene and remove the prosecutor,” he added.

The legal stand-off between the judge and the prosecutor has effectively blocked the investigation from advancing. Under Haitian law the judge has exclusive control over the investigation, including collecting evidence and summoning witnesses to testify. But it’s the prosecutor who handles the trial phase.

The judge has requested extra security protection and has privately told several people he wants to be relieved of the case due to threats he has received, according to several sources who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s public ombudsman has called for accountability for the “authors of this abominable crime, whoever they may be.” In a February statement, the ombudsman, Renan Hedouville, called the killing an “assassination” that was “carried out to silence those journalists who attack corruption and abuses of power, in particular those of the public prosecutor of Les Cayes, Ronald Richemond.”

With Thiogène back on the streets, Tesse’s family members say they are more fearful than ever and are in hiding. Tesse’s brother said he dares not sleep in the same place two nights in a row and is constantly on the move.

“We live clandestinely. Richemond has people everywhere. We know they are watching us,” he said.

This content originally appeared on Committee to Protect Journalists and was authored by David C. Adams.

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