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FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2016 file photo, Guy Philippe laughs during an interview in Pestel, Haiti. Philippe is expected to avoid a life sentence in a plea deal in federal court in Miami, Monday, April 24, 2017. Philippe faced a potential life prison sentence if convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering conspiracy charges. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery, File)
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Haiti leader pleads guilty to money laundering in drug case

FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2016 file photo, Guy Philippe laughs during an interview in Pestel, Haiti. Philippe is expected to avoid a life sentence in a plea deal in federal court in Miami, Monday, April 24, 2017. Philippe faced a potential life prison sentence if convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering conspiracy charges. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery, File)

MIAMI (AP) — A former Haitian coup leader and recently elected senator in that country pleaded guilty Monday to a U.S. drug money-laundering charge under a deal that should allow him to avoid a potential sentence of life in prison for cocaine trafficking.

Under the plea deal, the recommended prison sentence for Guy Philippe is nine years and the drug trafficking charge would be dropped. He also faces a $1.5 million fine at a sentencing hearing July 5.

“You understand I am under no obligation to impose that sentence?” asked U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga, noting that the maximum potential sentence is 20 years.

“Yes, your honor,” said Philippe.

Philippe, 49, led a 2004 Haitian uprising that ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and was indicted along with several others on U.S. drug charges in 2005. He managed to elude capture for more than a decade, including at least 10 attempts to arrest him in Haiti that involved a military operation and a foot chase through the countryside.

Philippe was elected to the Haitian Senate in November but was arrested while giving a live radio interview in the capital of Port-au-Prince in January and whisked immediately to the U.S. Altonaga rejected his claim of immunity as an elected Haitian official. The judge noted even if immunity applied, Philippe had not yet been officially sworn in.

There was no immediate comment about the guilty plea from the many members of Haiti’s parliament who questioned the legality of swiftly flying Philippe to Florida on the same day of his arrest in the capital’s Petionville district.

The remote, mountainous town of southwest Haiti where Philippe ran a virtual fiefdom was also quiet on Monday, local residents said. The town of Pestel was one of many communities on Haiti’s remote southern peninsula struggling with flooding following heavy rain.

Philippe admitted Monday in court that, as a high-ranking Haitian police commander in the city of Cap-Haitien, he accepted between $1.5 million and $3.5 million from drug smugglers from 1999 to 2003. Prosecutors say Philippe and other police officers took the money in exchange for ensuring safe passage for cocaine shipments from Colombia and other countries that went through Haiti on their way to Miami and other U.S. destinations.

“Philippe cast aside his duty to protect and serve the people of Haiti,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg. “Instead, he abused his position of authority as a high-ranking Haitian National Police officer to safeguard drug shipments and launder illicit trafficking proceeds.”

Philippe attorney Zeljka Bozanic said taking the potential life sentence off the table was the key to the plea agreement, especially considering there are few witnesses and documents available to mount a credible defense.

“We’re happy that’s going to be the result,” she said. “Hopefully he’ll still be a relatively young person walking out of there.”

About $376,000 of the illicit cash was wired to a Miami bank account from Haiti and Ecuador and used by Philippe to purchase a house in the Fort Lauderdale area, according to court documents.

There was a series of protests in Haiti when Philippe was arrested in January, with some supporters calling it an illegal kidnapping. Several dozen people demonstrated outside the Miami courthouse at one of his earlier appearances, but there was no such show of support Monday.

“It is important that Philippe accepted responsibility for his criminal offenses against the United States and the people of Haiti,” said Adolphus Wright, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami office.

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

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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