Rene Amizial was selling cooking charcoal on the roadside in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in mid-2015 when he was wrongfully accused of stealing 19 sacks of charcoal from a friend and competing business owner.
The business owner went to the police and accused Amizial, who was arrested and placed in prison to await trial.
Amizial knew he was innocent but resigned himself to his fate. “If it’s God’s will, let it be, but I know I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
MCC photo/Ted Oswald
Haiti’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and detainees can wait months for a preliminary hearing. Amizial was no exception. After several months, he had his trial. His accuser wasn’t able to present any evidence to prove Amizial’s guilt, and as a result he was judged not guilty.
That wasn’t the end, though. Amizial had to pay a fee to the court of more than US$100 in addition to lawyer’s fees to transmit his judgment to the prison authorities.
“He returned to prison without hope of release, simply because he was poor,” wrote Ted Oswald, a former MCC staff member in Haiti who blogged about the injustice of Amizial's experience in 2017.
Amizial didn’t know then that the Alliance Chretienne pour la Justice (ACJ; Christian Justice Alliance) would eventually help him. The organization was just being formed.
Forming ACJ and its mission
Oswald originally envisioned ACJ, which eventually became an MCC partner. Before coming to serve in Haiti, he was an attorney with the Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia.
“There, lawyers were counselors and defenders, friends and ministers of the Gospel,” Oswald wrote in his blog post. “During my first six months of service with MCC in Haiti, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Was this model of legal ministry and service possible in Haiti?’”
In 2014, Oswald discussed the idea with Siméon Jean, a Haitian pastor friend who was nearly finished with his legal studies. He had another close friend, Siméon Valet, a young lawyer training to be a pastor, who had experience freeing clients in prolonged detention.
MCC photo/Ted Oswald
With MCC’s support, the idea for a Christian lawyers’ association in Haiti that could offer pro bono services took shape and became ACJ in late 2016.
Now ACJ mobilizes and trains volunteer Christian lawyers to provide direct legal services to individuals in prolonged pretrial detention with relatively straight-forward, low-level offenses or accusations.
According to Valet, who coordinates ACJ, this organization prioritizes single parents in poverty, like Amizial.
As part of their ministry, the lawyers also offer to reconnect freed detainees and inmates with their churches or a local pastor. The pastors help the former prisoners reintegrate into the community.
After ACJ lawyers met with Amizial in prison, they used their funds, from MCC, to pay his fees.
“Thanks to the organization’s (ACJ’s) help, after 15 months I was released,” said Amizial. “I was at my breaking point.”
Valet says advocating for incarcerated people’s human rights is his duty as a Christian.
If we really, as Christians, say that we follow the Bible, we must apply what we read and fight for people’s human rights."
- Siméon Valet, a young Haitian lawyer training to be a pastor
“If we really, as Christians, say that we follow the Bible, we must apply what we read and fight for people’s human rights.”
In the first year, ACJ was able to free 35 people. Each year, the organization wants to free more people so that by 2020, ACJ projects helping 150 prisoners avoid unjust prison time, said Rebecca Shetler Fast, an MCC representative in Haiti.
The work of ACJ lawyers who want to use their skills to help people like Amizial combined with MCC’s partnership make the program possible.
“Without MCC, this program wouldn’t be possible because we wouldn’t be able to cover the judicial fees,” Valet explains.
For Amizial, freedom is a beautiful thing.
“Now that I’m out, I can really live,” he says. “Now I can see cars. I see people. I see beautiful things,” he says.