Thousands of Aristide supporters demonstrate in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, (Reuters) – Thousands of Haitians took to the streets on Wednesday in support of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, marking the eighth anniversary of his ouster amid Haitian media reports he could face charges for corruption during his rule.

Aristide supporters poured into the downtown streets of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, after marching from several slums, chanting pro-Aristide slogans.

The demonstration highlighted an increasingly tense political atmosphere in Haiti. On Friday, Prime Minister Garry Conille abruptly resigned after just four months in office over political infighting with President Michel Martelly.

The resignation plunged the country into political paralysis in the midst of rebuilding efforts two years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

Allies of Aristide, who returned to Haiti last year after seven years in exile, said the protest was intended as a show of support for the ex-leader after Haitian radio and TV reports said he may face an investigation on charges of misappropriation of public funds.

Haitian government officials have denied the reports.

Newton Louis Saint-Juste, a lawyer for Aristide, told Haitian radio on Tuesday that authorities were planning to investigate the former president.

Jean-Baptiste Bien-Aime, a senator and Aristide loyalist who was among the protesters, said, “the government and its allies have hatched a plot to persecute and arrest Dr. Aristide, but we want to tell them that such a plot has no chance of succeeding.”

He led demonstrators in chants of “If you touch Aristide, you will catch fire!”

A former Roman Catholic priest who still commands a loyal following among poor Haitians, Aristide became Haiti’s first freely elected president in 1991 but spent much of his first five-year term in exile after a military coup.

Elected again in 2000, his second term was soured by economic instability and gang and drug-related violence. He was driven from power in a 2004 rebellion led by former soldiers.

Martelly, a former pop star with no previous government experience who took office in May 2011, has been locked in a political battle with some lawmakers demanding he and some of his aides show proof they do not hold dual citizenship, which is illegal under Haitian law.

“We do not have a problem with Martelly because many of us voted for him, but he owes respect to President Aristide,” said one demonstrator, 39-year-old Ferrer Joazile.

“We are ready to turn the country upside down if he wants to arrest or persecute Aristide.”

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