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Amid supporters, Haiti leader pleads not guilty in drug case

MIAMI — With dozens of supporters packing a Miami federal courthouse, a former Haitian coup leader and recent senator-elect pleaded not guilty Friday to decade-old U.S. drug trafficking charges.

Guy Philippe entered the plea Friday morning at a brief hearing to a three-count cocaine smuggling and money-laundering conspiracy indictment dating to 2005 that carries a maximum life prison sentence if he is convicted.

Philippe, 48, was flown to the U.S. to face the charges after his arrest last week in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince during a live radio show. A leader of the 2004 coup that toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Philippe had recently been elected to the Haitian Senate and was days away from being sworn in when he was arrested.

Supporters who came to the courthouse Friday said Philippe is innocent and blamed his arrest on political foes. They contend Philippe's status as an elected Haitian official should give him immunity from prosecution, even though he had not officially taken office.

"We are here to support Senator Guy Philippe. We all feel like he is innocent," said Evince Francois, 43, who was himself a Senate candidate for a different seat. "We are here to let him know we stand up behind him. We think this is all politics."

Many supporters wore T-shirts with Philippe's picture and the slogan, "A Senator for the People." Outside the downtown Miami courthouse, some people carried "Free Guy Philippe" signs and waved the Haitian flag. Philippe's wife, Natalie, attended the hearing and met with demonstrators but declined to speak to reporters.

Philippe attorney Zeljka Bozanic said for now she is not seeking Philippe's release on bail but may revisit the issue in the future, although prosecutors want him to remain in custody. The case has not yet been set for trial.

U.S. authorities have previously prosecuted numerous former Haitian officials on drug charges, some of whom may be witnesses in the Philippe case.

In Haiti, there have been several disturbances in the southwestern Grand' Anse region where Philippe had his stronghold and where he was able to elude capture for many years.

Berson Soljour, a police commissioner in the region, told The Associated Press that there was a "small group behind the disturbances and we know who they are."

There continue to be small-scale street protests by Philippe's backers in the remote region and there has been enough tension that most Grand' Anse schools remain closed Friday as parents have kept their youngsters at home due to safety concerns.

William Cocks, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said earlier this week the U.S. Embassy has been in contact with some American citizens in the region since Philippe's arrest. The embassy issued a Jan. 6 security message warning U.S. citizens of disturbances in the area and calling for Americans working or living there to stay indoors and consider leaving the region when it was safe to do so.

"The majority of these individuals have arranged their own transport out of the area. We are maintaining contact with those who remain and stand ready to provide appropriate consular services to any U.S. citizens in need," he said.

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Associated Press writer David McFadden in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this story.

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