Paradise lost in the Dominican Republic
A storybook wedding takes an unexpected plot twist when the groom and his cousin are arrested.
The beaches at the Gran Bahia Principe resort in Punta Cana are most popular among visitors from Canada and the United States.
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic — When a Hamilton couple chose a beachside resort on the Dominican's sandy eastern coastline to exchange wedding vows, they didn't expect an intimate tour of the holiday destination's criminal justice system some say is corrupt. Stacey Miele says the price to free her husband and his cousin from a Dominican prison last month was $25,000 three weeks after the men were arrested following a fight at a Punta Cana resort on May 28. "Without that money, they would still be in there," Miele told The Spectator this week. The 31-year-old says she and her family are out $50,000 after doling out cash for a variety of reasons — ranging from fees for lawyers to payments for food and safety in prison, and footing the bill for extra days at the resort. "It was quite a ride," she said. Celia Meléndez, a Dominican lawyer who initially represented Nick Miele, 34, and Ben Costantini, 18, but referred her clients to a colleague, says the case left a bad taste in her mouth. "They had to pay many people and that hurts me." However, the district attorney in Higüey, where the case was handled, says everything was done to the letter of the law. "It was a legal resolution in the Dominican Republic," Mercedes Santana Rodriguez told The Spectator. In accordance with the law, the victim — identified as 46-year-old Canadian Nikolai Koutouzov in court documents — opted to abandon his rights before the tribunal, ending the criminal case, Santana Rodriguez said. In the Dominican Republic, criminal cases and civil suits are intertwined. Meléndez, however, still contends that some judicial districts in that country are hampered by entrenched corruption. Another veteran observer of the legal system there says the unlikely pairing of tourist wealth and drug trafficking through the country's eastern coast fuels that corruption. The system is "corrupt to the core," Jorge Pineda, the editor of an English-language newspaper, Dominican Today, said in an interview from Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. The Hamilton men's ordeal serves as a cautionary tale that sheds light on what can happen when Canadians who travel to the Caribbean tourist destination wind up on the wrong side of the law. In 2011, Canadians made 778,300 trips to the Dominican Republic, making it the sixth-most visited country, according to Statistics Canada. (The most frequently visited country for Canadians is the United States, followed by Mexico.) In an emailed statement Thursday, a spokesperson for Diane Ablonczy, minister of state for foreign affairs, said the government "takes the safety and security of Canadians abroad seriously." Travel advisories "are reviewed on a regular basis," Joshua Zanin noted. The current advisory urges Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution due to a high crime rate." "Canadians who travel abroad are always subject to local laws," Zanin added. The Hamilton men were charged with "physical aggression" after a fight broke out at the Gran Bahia Principe resort in Punta Cana, where only hours earlier, the newlyweds had tied the knot. At the courthouse in Higüey, the tribunal handed the men three months of "preventative prison" because they posed a flight risk and to give the prosecution time to investigate. Nick Miele, a construction worker, and Costantini, who works at the Hamilton Farmers' Market, maintained their innocence, but faced a two-year sentence and $100,000 US in damages claimed by a Canadian who was hurt in the fight. Lawyers presented the cost of the men's freedom and the civil settlement as one and the same, Stacey Miele said, referring to the $25,000 cash payment. "The exchange of money isn't done in the courthouse," added Miele, who works at a bank in Waterdown. "It's done outside the courthouse. It's literally done on the side of the street." Santana Rodriguez, the district attorney, said she wasn't privy to the details of the civil settlement. "I don't know what agreement they had," she said. "We did not intervene in this." Out-of-court settlements are common in the Dominican Republic, as they are in Canada The Spectator has no evidence that any officials pocketed any of the $25,000 or engaged in illegal activity. But the Hamilton contingent is bewildered by how their legal ordeal played out. Stacey Miele said the family was backed into a corner. "At that point, we were just desperate to do anything we could to get them out." At the outset, a man masquerading as a lawyer willing to work on the family's behalf said the case could be settled by paying $110,000, she recalled. They rejected the man's offer, Miele said, but only after her uncle gave him $500 in the hope he could get her husband and his cousin out of trouble. After considerable media coverage and liaising with Canadian consular officials, the Dominican prosecution dropped charges against the Hamilton men. On June 17, they were released from prison and allowed to return home. That evening, the Canadian government issued a statement welcoming the resolution. "We are pleased that the two Canadian parties involved in an altercation in the Dominican Republic have found common ground in order to resolve their situation," Ablonczy said. The next day, in the House of Commons, Hamilton MP David Sweet praised Canadian consular staff for working with Dominican judicial officials. "Thanks to the efforts of the Canadian consular officials in the Dominican Republic, who were praised by officials in the Dominican justice system, and to the minister of state and consular affairs and her hardworking staff for their engagement on behalf of all Canadians involved," the Conservative MP said. Sweet also noted Canadians abroad are "subject to local laws and local justice systems which are different from our own." Asked to respond to the family's concerns, Zanin declined Thursday. "It would be inappropriate to comment on legal matters." A former Canadian diplomat who worked in the Dominican Republic says the country's legal system faces "significant challenges." "The Dominican Republic tends to be a trans-shipment point for drugs coming from South America to North America, and this has a very negative impact on the legal system, and tends to compromise large parts of it," said Paul Durand, who was the Organization of American States' representative in the Dominican Republic from 2006 to 2009. "At times, the legal system is rather impenetrable and lacking in transparency, so it's difficult working from the outside to make efficient use of it," Durand added. Accounts of the dust-up at the Gran Bahia Principe vary. The Hamilton contingent says two men starting fighting at a buffet-style eatery called Las Olas — which means "The Waves" -- between 2:30 and 3 a.m. As the men struggled, they knocked over the bride, who was at the buffet. Nick Miele "threw them off" and "in the process, a couple of fists were thrown to the body," Rick Vernon, Stacey's father, told The Spectator, likening the conflict to a "bar fight." One of the men ran off, but returned to slug the other in the face, he said, adding the attacker kicked his opponent — identified in court documents as 46-year-old Nikolai Koutouzov — twice in the head while he was on the ground. Then he ran off. "This guy was never found. Never looked for," Vernon said. In contrast, a statement by Koutouzov's wife (listed as both Maria Loutouzov and Marina Pivovarova in the court documents) identifies Miele and Costantini as the aggressors. In his civil claim against the Hamilton men, Koutouzov (whose surname is also spelled Koutouzob in the paperwork) says the blows came so fast and furious, at one point he thought he would be killed. A doctor's report notes Koutouzov, suffering from head trauma and facial bruising and cuts, was sent to a Santo Domingo hospital. The Spectator wasn't able to reach Koutouzov or his wife for comment. Employees at the Gran Bahia Principe were deeply troubled by the fight at Las Olas, says the general manager of the Spanish-owned resort. An unusual occurrence, the struggle was both a confusing and exceptionally violent episode, Ignacio M. Subias Cano said in an interview at the hotel. Security did their best to sort out the melee, he said. "There were two people who were identified by the people who were there — by the witnesses who were there — as part of the fight. There was a lot of tumult." A hotel employee who spoke to the Hamilton contingent shortly after the struggle but didn't witness the fight, believes Miele and Costantini were unjustly implicated. Security should have investigated before pouncing on them as the instigators, he said. It's not the resort's role, nor within its ability, to investigate such an incident, Subias Cano said. "The protocol is very simple," he noted. "It's to call the police and nothing else." The police are the weakest link in the Dominican criminal justice chain, says another Dominican legal expert. A lack of resources hinders the collection of reliable evidence, says Manuel Ramón Peña Conce, a lawyer who was director of Universidad Católica Santo Domingo's law school for 17 years. "This also affects the quality of the judgment," he added. However, Peña Conce, believes the justice system has improved a great deal. In 1997, a sweeping reform of the Supreme Court set justice on the right path, he said. In addition to a structural overhaul, new chief justices were appointed. Those fresh faces were desperately needed, suggests Pineda, the newspaper editor. "It was just a market. If you wanted something done, it was like the highest bidder." Now, with increased oversight resulting from the reform, judges can less easily get away with corruption, he said. Still, Meléndez, the Hamilton pair's first lawyer, is fed up with the system and muses about an early retirement. After nearly 30 years, she's thinking about throwing in the towel when she turns 50 in December. "At least I'm going to live a peaceful life.";