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The former mayor of a small Haitian town accused of terrorizing his political opponents goes on trial in Boston federal court on Monday in a case that highlights the violent nature of Haiti’s politics and the lack of accountability.
The suit filed against Jean Morose Viliena, who now lives in suburban Boston, includes claims of killing, torture and arson in the town of Les Irois, which is about 140 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
The plaintiffs in the suit filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco are three Haitian citizens who allege they or their relatives were violently persecuted by Viliena and his political allies.
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They allege Viliena — a loyalist of former Haitian President Michel Martelly — and his associates killed the brother of a man who accused Viliena of misconduct in office, attempted to kill two others during a raid on a community radio station, and burned down 36 homes while targeting political opponents, the suit says.
They are suing under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, a U.S. law that allows civil lawsuits to be filed in the United States against foreign officials alleged to have committed torture or extrajudicial killing if all legal avenues in their home country have been exhausted.
The plaintiffs lodged legal complaints against Viliena in Haiti, but he was ultimately released and never tried.
Daniel McLaughlin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said political violence in Haiti is “endemic.”
David Boniface, Nissage Martyr and Juders Yseme, from left, pose together in January 2014, in Haiti. Boniface, Yseme, and Martyr’s son Nissandere are plaintiffs in a suit against former Les Irois, Haiti, Mayor Jean Morose Viliena, who is accused of terrorizing his political opponents. (Ela Matthews/Center for Justice & Accountability via AP)
“It is almost impossible to seek accountability for acts of political violence that are committed by well-connected individuals,” he said. “And that level of impunity reigns throughout Haiti.”
It’s not the first time a former Haitian official has gone before an American court to answer for alleged wrongdoing in their homeland. In 2006, a judge in New York ordered former Haitian strongman Emmanuel “Toto” Constant to pay $19 million in damages to three women who said they were gang-raped by paramilitary soldiers under his command.
Viliena, who lives in Malden and is now a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., declined to comment and deferred questions to his lawyer, Peter Haley, who also declined to comment..
In pre-trial court filings, Viliena denied the allegations and asked the judge to rule in his favor over a lack of evidence.
Judge Allison Burroughs denied Viliena’s motion for summary judgment, citing “the weakness, politicization, and corruption of the Haitian justice system,” and the risk of retribution to the plaintiffs if they pursue legal remedies in Haiti.
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Viliena was the mayor of Les Irois, a town of about 22,000 on the westernmost tip of Haiti, from late 2006 to early 2010, according to the lawsuit.
He was elected as a candidate for the Haitian Democratic and Reform Movement and was backed by the Committee for Resistance in Grande-Anse, which dominates regional politics through patronage, threats and armed violence, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that in 2007, Viliena began a “campaign of persecution” against David Boniface, a political opposition supporter, after he tried to defend a neighbor who allegedly was assaulted by Viliena.
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During a hearing on the matter before a Les Irois judge a short time later, Boniface accused Viliena of abusing his authority. Viliena allegedly led a large group of men armed with guns, machetes and clubs to Boniface’s home that evening. In Boniface’s absence, his younger brother, Eclesiaste Boniface, was dragged out of the house and fatally shot by one of Viliena’s men, the lawsuit says.
The suit also alleges that Viliena and his men beat and shot two men at a community radio station in 2008. One of the men, Juders Ysemé, was blinded in one eye, while the other lost one of his legs and spent several months in the hospital, according to the suit.
The second man, Nissage Martyr, has since died and his son has taken his place as a plaintiff.
The suit seeks unspecified damages.