Forty five people were held in the jail cell, which had one window and one row of bunk beds. Men without a bed would sleep under the bottom bunks on the floor, says Estimable Francius Dauphin. He spent almost one year in this jail cell in Cap Hatien, Haiti, despite having never been convicted of a crime.
During his ordeal, many Rochestarians tried to get him released, believing his detention was politically motivated. They consider him a close friend and partner. They wrote letters to their congressional representatives, human rights groups and emissaries of the Vatican. They paid for lawyers, visited the prison and prayed.
When he was freed on June, 20, they rejoiced. On Aug. 20 they will host an event in Rochester so that he can share his story.
Estimable’s connections to Rochester stretch back more than a decade, to days when he worked as a teacher and spearheaded many community projects in Borgne, a pretty little town on the coast of northern Haiti. He was eventually elected assistant mayor of Borgne and took office in 2006.
His efforts were admired by Rochesterians like Sarah Brownell, a Rochester Institute of Technology lecturer who lived in Haiti and worked on water and sanitation projects. They began to work together and connections between Borgne and the Rochester area flourished. There is now a Sister Cities relationship between Borgne and Honeoye Falls. A local nonprofit organization Friends of Borgne was founded to support schools, food programs, a traveling library and a marching band. St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality took on a soup kitchen program for the elderly of Borgne called Pan Ak Pwason.
After the devastating earthquake of 2010, regular elections were canceled and the government of Haitian President Michel Martelly installed local leaders of its choosing. Estimable stepped aside until elections were held again in 2015, when he decided to run for mayor.
Several Rochesterians supported his candidacy, including James Murphy, a St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality Catholic Worker who went down to Borgne to serve as a driver for Estimable’s campaign. After the election, he was hopeful. “There was a lot of joy,” Murphy said. “The people who tallied the votes locally were talking about a landside for Johnny.”
The paper ballots were kept at the police station. Concerned citizens stayed up all night, keeping a vigil outside the station to try to ensure that no one entered to tamper with the votes. U.N. Peacekeepers were all over the country due to concerns about voter fraud, corruption and unrest.
Corruption seems to have struck Borgne’s election, say Brownell and Estimable. When votes were counted, many polling stations that had been won by Estimable in unofficial counts had their results annulled. Estimable spent a month and a half contesting the results in Port au Prince. After he had exhausted all avenues, he returned home to Borgne. Not long after, police came to his house and told him to appear before a judge, who accused him of burning down houses and threw him in jail.
Estimable said he provided the judge proof that he was in Port au Prince when the alleged crimes took place, in the form of hotel receipts, bank statements and hotel video. The hotel owner testified that Estimable had indeed been staying at his establishment during the time he was accused of burning down houses.
Justice moved slowly and Estimable was forced to wait for a trial. He was allowed out of the jail cell, twice a day, for about 10 minutes. He was never allowed outside. Friends at home and in Rochester tried to help, contacting anyone they thought might be able to intervene.
“We believe his arrest, extended imprisonment, and failure to be given a court date are
politically motivated retributions for his successful community development work on behalf of youth, farmers and the elderly,” Sarah Brownell and James Murphy wrote to the Apostolic nuncio to Haiti, a representative of the Vatican. “We also suspect his run for mayor of Borgne, and his court contestation of seemingly fraudulent election results are other contributing factors to his imprisonment.”
Eventually, Estimable got his day in court and the charges against him were dismissed. Just as he was supposed to be released, another person from the opposing political party accused him of having burned a house and car in 2015. He had to stay in jail longer until inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony led to the new charges being dismissed as well.
He was finally released on June 20, having spent almost a year in prison. Huge crowds gathered to meet him when he returned to Borgne, including a youth band that plays with instruments shipped from Rochester. This month Estimable is visiting his friends in Rochester. He could apply for political asylum in the United States but he wants to return to Borgne to continue his humanitarian work. “He still is going to work for his community,” said Murphy. “That is a message of courage.”
Estimable said he remains committed to the motto to “leave the world better than you found it.” He is sad for the state of the justice system and the electoral system in Haiti but says that his experience will not force him to abandon his home or deter him from his work in Borgne. “I am not going to leave the community I was born in,” he said. “That is where Jesus put me and I am there to help it advance.”
Estimable will speak about his experience and Rochester-Haiti connections at an event titled “Haiti, Ice Cream and Sloppy Joes at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, 402 South Ave., on Sunday, Aug. 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. There is a $5 suggested donation.
Erica Bryant | August 13, 2017