Haiti President Jovenel Moise assassinated in attack on his residence

Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, center, leaves the museum during a ceremony marking the 215th anniversary of revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture's death, at the National Pantheon museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
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(CNN) — Haiti’s President Jovenel Moisewas killed during an attack on his private residence early on Wednesday, according to the country’s acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph. 

Joseph said in a statement that a group of unidentified individuals stormed Moise’s home at around 1 a.m. and fatally wounded the head of state. He described the assassination as a “heinous, inhumane and barbaric act.”

In a further statement, Joseph said the President was killed in a “highly coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group.” He did not specify how Moise died. Haiti’s first lady was shot and is receiving treatment, he also said.

The country has been reeling from violence for weeks. Addressing the nation in a televised statement, Joseph declared a “state of siege” in Haiti and pleaded with citizens to remain calm. 

“Me and all the ministers have been working since the news broke and we want to assure you we will bring the killers of the president to justice,” he added. “Please stay calm and let the authorities do their work. We don’t want the country to plunge into chaos. This is a very sad day for our nation and for our people.”

Follow live updates: Haiti's president assassinated

The state of siege is the middle of three levels of emergency under Haitian law, alongside the lower “state of emergency” and the highest level referred to as the “state of war.” 

Under the state of siege regime, national borders are closed and martial law temporarily is imposed, with Haiti’s military and national police empowered to enforce the law. 

It isn’t immediately clear who will replace Moise. Judge Jean Wilner Morin, President of the National Association of Haitian Judges, told CNN that the line of presidential succession in the country is now murky. 

Haiti’s President of the Supreme Court would normally be next in line, but he recently died of Covid-19. For the acting Prime Minister Joseph to formally replace the President, he would have to be approved by Haiti’s parliament, said Morin. But without recent elections, the parliament is effectively defunct.

Moise was 53 years old. The former banana exporter was a controversial figure and spent most of the past year waging a political war with the opposition over the terms of his presidency.

Many in the country were disputing his right to continue serving in the presidency this year. 

While the United States, United Nations and Organization of American States supported his claim to a fifth year in office, critics say he should have stepped down in February 7, 2021, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.

Moise sits with his wife Martine during his swearing-in ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 7, 2017.

Moise claimed his five-year term should end in 2022 because he wasn’t sworn in until February 2017. His inauguration was delayed over allegations of voter fraud during the 2015 election, which led to a presidential runoff that was postponed twice over what authorities called threats and “security concerns.”

Throughout his presidency, Moise had repeatedly failed to hold elections at local and national levels, leaving much of the country’s governing infrastructure empty.

A constitutional referendum originally scheduled to be held last month was postponed and is now set to be held in September, alongside the presidential and legislative elections, authorities said, blaming the Covid-19 pandemic for the delay.Thousands seek refuge from wave of violence in Haiti’s capital city

The country’s electoral council said in a statement that the country would implement health measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus so that Haitians could cast their votes safely.

Municipal and local elections have been scheduled for January 16, 2022, the official electoral calendar also showed.

Moise’s death takes place against a background of extreme violence in Haitian capital Port-au-Prince that has claimed the lives of many citizens and escalated notably in June. 

The US Embassy in Haiti issued a security alert following the news of the assassination. It said in a statement that it would be closed on Wednesday due to the “ongoing security situation.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the attack a “tragedy.” “It’s a horrific crime,” Psaki told CNN. “We stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that is needed … it’s important that people of Haiti know that.” She added that the White House was assessing the situation and gathering information. 

A number of other countries expressed their condolences to the Haitian people. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for calm, saying he was “shocked and saddened” at Moise’s death. “Our condolences are with his family and the people of Haiti. This is an abhorrent act and I call for calm at this time,” Johnson tweeted.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted a statement saying: “Spain strongly condemns the assassination of the President of Haiti … We call for the unity of the political forces to find a way out of the serious crisis that the country experiences.”

Worsening situation

The Caribbean nation has been struggling to contain violence in recent months. Rival groups have battled with one another or the police for control of the streets, displacing tens of thousands of people and worsening the country’s humanitarian crisis. Infamous ex-police officer Jimmy Cherizier last week vowed before local media to carry out a “revolution” in the city.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has been worsening in Haiti in recent weeks. Last month, Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of Pan American Health Organization, warned that the response in the country must be scaled up dramatically to cope with sharply escalating cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Haiti has reported more than 19,000 Covid-19 cases and 462 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.

At the same time, the country — the poorest in Latin America — is facing a dire economic situation. Its economy had been contracting even before the pandemic and shrunk further 3.8% in 2020, with about 60% of the population now living in poverty, according to the World Bank.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, said in May that severe acute childhood malnutrition is expected to more than double in Haiti this year as it deals with rising violence, Covid-19 and a lack of access to essential services.

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