A Lévis, Que., man is facing terrorism charges after RCMP say he allegedly planned a terrorist act to overthrow the Haitian government of Jovenel Moïse.
Gérald Nicolas, 51, took "concrete actions," including travelling to Haiti to co-ordinate a group of individuals whose intention was to take part in a coup against the established authority, the RCMP said in a news release Thursday.
Nicolas faces three charges, including leaving Canada to facilitate a terrorist activity, facilitating a terrorist activity and providing property for terrorist purposes.
RCMP say the charges stem from an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) investigation, which began after an exchange of information with local police in Lévis, on Quebec City's south shore.
The investigation, which began in July 2021, revealed Nicolas allegedly planned to stage an armed revolution in Haiti and ultimately seize power.
Police say Nicolas recruited people for armed revolution
RCMP Sgt. Charles Poirier said investigators believed Nicolas started hatching his plan as early as January 2020.
"He actually managed to travel to Haiti and to other parts of Central America and South America. He went to several countries there to recruit people to get some financing and also to acquire weapons, which he was unsuccessful in doing," Poirier told CBC News.
The RCMP officer said Nicolas is not in custody because he is not considered a threat to Canadians and that this investigation is unrelated to the July 2021 assassination of Jovenel Moïse.
The situation in Haiti in 2020 and early 2021, when Nicolas is accused of beginning to plan a coup, was fraught with discontent against Moïse, according to Frantz Voltaire, a Haitian historian, political scientist and community leader.
"There were no functional institutions in the country. There was a lot of discontent," Voltaire said.
Before he was assassinated, Moïse, who came to power after turbulent elections in 2015 and 2016, had clashed with opponents who argued his presidential term was over.
But the announcement of charges against a Quebecer accused of planning to overthrow the Haitian government came as a shock to Voltaire.
"I've never heard any talk of a case like this," he said, adding that he had never heard of Nicolas and that the Lévis man is not prominent in Haiti.
"But you know, it happens often that there are groups that conspire against the government."
Accused denies all charges
Nicolas, in a conversation with Radio-Canada, denied the charges, saying he was set up by a woman he met online on the Seeking Arrangement dating website.
He acknowledged he sent money and travelled to Haiti, but claims it was all for "people in need." He says the reason he was accused has to do with his ethnicity as a Haitian man.
"If I was white I would not be speaking with you today," said Nicolas. "The only thing I did is go to Haiti and educate Haitians so they can take their future [in their hands]."
'Extremely serious' charges
Although the news of these charges might be surprising for some, the Haitian diaspora community is large and often feels very strong ties and loyalties to their country said Harold Isaac, an independent journalist in Haiti.
"Some folks take things really to heart. That being said, it doesn't excuse someone attempting criminal actions but it can explain in part why that person would feel compelled to do something," said Isaac. "This is sadly the situation we're living in."
There are still a number of questions about the accused, including why he is not in police custody, said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer and manager at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
"There is a little bit of confusion in the information. Because it says that the RCMP arrested somebody but now he would be released with [an] accusation of that nature. We're not talking simply sort of theft of a bicycle here, we're talking about terrorist activities," said Juneau-Katsuya, who is a specialist on national security issues.
"We have had people charged under the Criminal Code for terrorist activities but planning a coup abroad is to my knowledge the first time that we charge somebody of that nature … This is extremely serious. It goes up to life imprisonment if need be as a penalty."
Nicolas is expected to appear in court in Quebec City on Dec.1. Defence lawyer Tiago Murias said he is waiting for the Crown to disclose evidence but Nicolas intends to contest the charges and will plead not guilty.