PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI- A former Haitian mayor has been accused of political violence and terror in a Boston courtroom, where a trial began Monday that reveals the wider issue of bloodshed and unaccountability in Haiti’s government.
A U.S. District Court in Boston heard opening arguments from attorneys who painted vastly different pictures of Jean Morose Viliena. There were allegations of killings, torture, and arson, as well as a successful mayor who improved Les Irois in the late 2000s.
A lawsuit is being filed against Viliena, who now lives in Massachusetts, by three Haitian citizens who believe they were persecuted by him and his political allies.
According to the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, in cases where all legal avenues have been exhausted in their home countries, civil lawsuits can be filed in the U.S. against foreign officials alleged to have committed torture or extrajudicial killing. In San Francisco, it was filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability.
As mayor of Les Irois, a town of around 22,000 people about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, Viliena was not involved in violence and provided services to the residents.
Viliena’s attorney, Peter Haley, described a farmer’s son who studied, ran for mayor in 2006, built paved roads, opened a medical clinic, and improved the education system, all of which were lacking before he was elected.
Haley describes Viliena as a “very productive member of the community” and a lawful permanent resident of the United States. He moved to the Boston suburb of Malden in 2009, drives a truck, and drives for a living.
Viliena violently suppressed and intimidated his political foes, even after he moved to the United States, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Bonnie Lau.
“This case is about murder, torture, arson and abuse of power,” Lau told the jurors
In Haiti, David Boniface, Juders Ysemé, and Nissandère Martyr filed legal complaints against Viliena, but he was never tried.
As a result of Haiti’s corrupt justice system, Lau said they are suing in the U.S.
Previously, Haitian officials have appeared in American courts for alleged wrongdoing in their homeland. In 2006, a New York judge ordered former Haitian strongman Emmanuel “Toto” Constant to pay $19 million in damages for gang rapes committed by paramilitary soldiers under his command.
According to the lawsuit, Viliena was elected for the Haitian Democratic and Reform Movement and backed by the Committee for Resistance in Grande-Anse, which dominates regional politics through patronage, threats, and armed violence.
According to Robert Maguire, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and Haiti expert who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, armed paramilitary groups are commonplace in Haiti that ally themselves with particular political parties and candidates and function above the law.
In return for providing muscle, the paramilitary groups receive motorcycles, jobs, government posts and access to power, he said.
Due to Haiti’s weak government and justice system, they act with impunity.
“When there’s no police or judiciary to keep you in check, you feel like you can act like you wish,” he said.
Defense attorney Haley pushed back, asking Maguire if he was in Les Irois at the time of the alleged violence, and Maguire acknowledged he had never been there.
During 2007, Viliena – a loyalist to former Haitian President Michel Martelly – began a “campaign of persecution” against Boniface, a political opposition supporter, after he attempted to defend a neighbor allegedly assaulted by Viliena for dumping garbage on the street.
It is alleged that Viliena led a group of men armed with guns, machetes, and clubs to Boniface’s home. One of Viliena’s men shot Eclesiaste Boniface to death while Boniface was absent, the lawsuit claims.
“They left his body on the street all night to send a message,” Lau said.
As part of the suit, Viliena and his men are accused of beating and shooting Ysemé and Martyr at a community radio station in 2008. The lawsuit claims that Ysemé was blinded in one eye and Martyr lost a leg as a result of the accident.
Since Nissage Martyr died, his son has taken his place as plaintiff.
Viliane’s allies also allegedly burned down dozens of homes occupied by his political opponents in 2009. Although Vilienawas not present during the arson, his allies carried out his orders, Lau said.
Unspecified damages are sought in the lawsuit.