He was mayor of a town in Haiti. Now he has to pay his victims $15M, U.S. court rules

·4 min read
Steven Senne/AP

A former mayor of a small town in Haiti’s western region has been ordered by a federal court in Boston to pay $15.5 million in damages after being found guilty in a civil case of torture, extrajudicial killings, attempted killing and arson.

Jean Morose Viliena, a U.S. resident in Malden, Massachusetts, was appointed mayor of Les Irois in Haiti’s Grand’Anse region in 2012 by former Haitian President Michel Martelly. He got the job despite a murder indictment in the Haitian courts.

Five years later, Viliena, now working as a school bus and Uber driver in the Boston area, was sued in federal court in Massachusetts. The suit was filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability, along with the multinational Dentons law firm and Morrison & Foerster on behalf of three Haitian men who accused Viliena and his political allies of political persecution that included human rights abuses.

On Tuesday, after five days of trial that included expert witnesses, a jury found in favor of plaintiffs David Boniface, Juders Ysemé and Nissage Martyr.

“I am very happy and feel very proud because the American justice system has given us justice. For 15 years, we’ve been fighting in Haiti to find justice and could never find it,” Ysemé told the Miami Herald after the verdict. Every time they thought they had a court date in Haiti, he said, Viliena used his influence to thwart justice. “They never called him before the courts.”

Ysemé, 36, said he was at a radio station in Les Irois that Viliena had announced in advance he was going to attack. Viliena entered “with guns and machetes” with his group, Ysemé said. “He beat me and after he beat me... issued orders to shoot me. I lost my right eye,” Ysemé said.

Attorney Daniel McLaughlin with the Center for Justice & Accountability said the lawyers and their clients are “overjoyed with this verdict.”

“It’s an acknowledgment of the harms that they suffered, the killings, the torture, the attempted extrajudicial killings,” he said. “It’s also a strong message to the defendant and to others who would act like him that the commission of atrocities are unacceptable and they will be held accountable for it.”

The lawsuit was filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. The law allows civil lawsuits to be filed in the U.S. against foreign officials who commit wrongdoing in their countries if the victims are unable to get justice in their own countries.

McLaughlin said the judge in the case acknowledged that it was “futile” for the plaintiffs to try to seek justice in Haiti because of corruption and a dysfunctional judicial system — and because of the threats of retribution against those who dare to go after powerful politicians.

“He had been arrested briefly, let go through political pressure and continued to travel back and forth from Boston to Haiti, including serving as mayor of Les Irois even though he was residing here and criminal charges were pending against him in Haiti,” McLaughlin said of Viliena, who had also come under scrutiny by the United Nations. “Ultimately he was declared a fugitive by the Haitian courts.”

Expert testimony in the case was provided by Robert Maguire, a retired professor and longtime Haiti expert, and Brian Concannon of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy.

“The verdict sends a strong message to those in Haiti who abuse their power and the human rights of others that their impunity resulting from Haiti’s weak and dysfunctional rule of law does not follow them to the United States,” Maguire said, adding that it should give courage to “those who have been abused.

“More broadly, this verdict should send a broader message in Haiti that human rights violators cannot assume indefinite impunity for their abusive and violent acts.”

McLaughlin said while it still remains to be determined how much of the money Viliena can pay — he did not put forward much evidence of his financial means — the case wasn’t about money.

“The clients had always been clear that the reason why they brought this case is they wanted to have their day before an impartial court and have that court acknowledge the harms and to have the defendant held accountable and that has happened,” he said.