Former Haitian mayor sued in federal court for human rights abuses

The former mayor of a small Haitian village in 2012 has been sued in a United States federal district for human rights abuses, according to reports here.

The San Francisco, California-based Center for Justice & Accountability and the multinational Dentons law firm on Thursday filed a civil lawsuit in a US District Court in Boston, Mass., accusing Jean Morose Viliena, the former mayor of Les Irois in Haiti’s Grand’Anse region, of torture, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing and arson, reported the Miami Herald.

The paper said on Thursday that Viliena, now a Boston school bus and Uber driver, was appointed mayor by former Haitian President Michel Martelly, “despite a murder indictment in the Haitian courts.”

Lawyers are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against Viliena on behalf of three victims, the Herald said.

“The problem in Haiti is if you have political connections, you can literally get away with murder,” said Scott Gilmore, a human rights attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability. “You can be handpicked to return to office.”

Gilmore said Viliena is being sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which gives foreign victims of human rights abuses the right to sue in US courts whenever the perpetrator is found in the United States, the Herald said.

It said Viliena lives in Malden, Mass., and works as a licensed school bus driver.

“He also appears to be working as an Uber driver,” Gilmore said, noting that Viliena’s Facebook profile said he studied at Bunker Hill Community College, though he was notified of the lawsuit Thursday on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

The lawsuit alleges that, after his 2006 election as mayor, Viliena led an armed militia in a campaign of terror against media activists and human rights defenders in Les Irois, according to the Herald.

In 2007, it said Viliena’s supporters led a reprisal attack against a human rights activist after the activist denounced him in court for assaulting a neighbor.

The attack led to the death of the activist’s brother, who was slashed with a machete before being shot to death, the Herald said.

The following year, in April 2008, after Viliena announced on-air that he was shutting down a community radio station, his supporters invaded the host’s home, the Herald said, adding that she was beaten and shot, and eventually had one of her legs amputated due to the wounds.

Another person in the home was blinded in one eye by Viliena’s supporters, the Herald reported the lawsuit as alleging.

“Viliena’s campaign to silence dissent,” the lawsuit alleges, “culminated in an arson rampage when he visited Haiti in October 2009. In a single night, Viliena’s supporters torched 36 homes of perceived political opponents in Les Irois.”

Viliena fled to the Boston area after a criminal investigation was opened against him in 2009, when a Haitian investigative judge indicted him for murder, battery and property destruction, the Herald said, adding that the case remains open.

“All attempts to bring Viliena to trial have been blocked by witness tampering, political interference and his flight from justice,” the Herald quoted a 2013 United Nations report.

The paper said, that same year, after Viliena’s term as mayor expired with no new elections planned; he was appointed by Martelly to serve as “interim executive agent,” or mayor, of Les Irois.

“Mayor Viliena is getting away with murder,” said David Boniface, the human rights activist, claiming that his brother was one of Viliena’s victims in 2008.

Boniface is one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The other two are Nissage Martyr, radio station host, and Juders Yseme, who was blinded in one eye, the Herald said.

It said Boniface had sought justice in the Haitian courts.

“But rather than put Viliena behind bars, the Haitian government put him back in power,” Boniface said.

Viliena is not the first Haitian national to be sued in a US federal court for human rights violations, the Herald said.

In 2007, it said a Miami federal jury ruled that former Haiti Army Col. Carl Dorelien was liable for the 1993 torture of a former Port-au-Prince labor leader and the 1994 death of a man during an infamous massacre that took place in Raboteau, a town in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.

Dorelien was among the officers who overthrew Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, the Herald said.

It said he eventually fled to Florida, where, in 1997, he won US$3.2 million in the Florida Lottery.

The plaintiffs, which included the widow of the Raboteau massacre victim, were awarded US$4.3 million after the Center for Justice & Accountability sued on their behalf, the Herald said.

A year earlier, it said the Center’s clients had also won a US$19 million judgment against Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the once-feared leader of the right-wing paramilitary group the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, accused of terrorizing, raping and slaughtering Aristide loyalists in the early ’90s.

In a now-famous “60 Minutes” interview, the former strongman boasted that he had been on the CIA payroll, according to the Herald.

“He was convicted in New York state of mortgage fraud, and he’s in New York State prison,” said Gilmore, whose group filed the suit alongside the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The Viliena lawsuit, Gilmore said, comes after almost 10 years “of repeated efforts by the victims to get justice in Haiti’s judicial system.”

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