Rene Amizial was selling cooking charcoal on the roadside in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 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.
He 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,” Amizial said.
Haiti’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. 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 he was judged not guilty.
That wasn’t the end, though. Amizial had to pay a fee to the court of more than $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 Mennonite Central Committee 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 (Christian Justice Alliance) would eventually help him. The organization was just being formed.
Oswald originally envisioned ACJ, which eventually became an MCC partner. Before coming to serve in Haiti, he was an attorney with Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia.
“There, lawyers were counselors and defenders, friends and ministers of the gospel,” Oswald wrote in his blog. “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.
With MCC’s support, the idea for a Christian lawyers’ association in Haiti that could offer free services took shape and became ACJ in late 2016.
Now ACJ mobilizes and trains volunteer Christian lawyers to provide legal services to individuals in prolonged pretrial detention.
According to Valet, who coordinates ACJ, this organization prioritizes single parents in poverty, like Amizial.
As part of their ministry, the lawyers offer to reconnect freed detainees and inmates with their churches or a local pastor. The pastors help former prisoners reintegrate into the community.
Free after 15 months
After ACJ lawyers met with Amizial in prison, they used their funds, from MCC, to pay his fees.
“Thanks to [ACJ’s] help, after 15 months I was released,” Amizial said. “I was at my breaking point.”
Valet believes 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,” he said.
In the first year, ACJ was able to free 35 people. Each year, the organization wants to free more people so that by 2020 it projects helping 150 prisoners avoid unjust prison time, said Rebecca Shetler Fast, an MCC representative in Haiti.
“Without MCC, this program wouldn’t be possible because we wouldn’t be able to cover the judicial fees,” Valet said.
For Amizial, freedom is a beautiful thing.
“Now that I’m out, I can really live,” he said. “I see beautiful things.”