PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds of Haitians chanted "Down with kidnapping! Down with dictatorship!" as they marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, bolstering opposition leaders who stepped up their demands that President Jovenel Moïse resign.
The latest protest is the biggest one yet this year, and it comes just days after Moïse announced that police had arrested nearly two dozen people accused of an alleged coup conspiracy, including a Supreme Court judge, who was ordered released Wednesday.
Opposition leaders labeled the arrests as political repression while critics accuse Moïse of trying to become more powerful.
"We're all asking for the population to rise up," said former Sen. Youri Latortue, one of Haiti's opposition leaders. "We're not backing down."
The opposition coalition recently announced that another Supreme Court judge, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, had become Haiti's supposed transitional president. Jean-Louis accepted the position, which no one in the international community has recognized.
The opposition claims that Moïse's five-year term ended on Feb. 7, but Moïse has reiterated that it ends in February 2022 since he wasn't sworn in until 2017. Prior to that, a provisional president ruled Haiti for one year following chaotic elections marred by allegations of fraud.
The situation in Haiti has caught the attention of the international community, prompting a public statement from the U.S. Embassy in Haiti on Tuesday, a day after Moïse's administration basically fired three Superior Court judges by announcing that they had been forced into retirement. Among the three is Jean-Louis and Yvickel Dabrézil, who was arrested on Sunday.
The U.S. Embassy said it was scrutinizing the order to determine if it's legal.
"We are deeply concerned about any actions that risk damaging Haiti's democratic institutions," the embassy said as it called on Moïse to hold overdue legislative elections.
Moïse has been ruling by presidential decree for more than a year after dissolving a majority of Parliament in January 2020 amid a delay in legislative elections given political gridlock and protests that paralyzed the country in 2019.
His administration also has faced an increase in violence and kidnappings and a deepening poverty, with protesters on Wednesday also demanding a better life.
The peaceful protest was interrupted by police firing tear gas on demonstrators and on a group of journalists.