BOSTON (AP) — Accusations of political violence and terror have followed a former Haitian mayor all the way to a Boston courtroom, where a civil trial began Monday that shines a light on the wider issue of bloodshed and unaccountability in the Caribbean nation's politics.
Attorneys painted widely different pictures of Jean Morose Viliena during opening arguments in U.S. District Court in Boston. Those included claims of a killing, torture and arson — or a successful mayor who helped improve the town of Les Irois in the late 2000s.
Viliena, who now lives in Massachusetts, is being sued by three Haitian citizens who say they or their relatives were persecuted by him and his political allies.
The suit was filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which allows civil lawsuits to be filed in the U.S. against foreign officials who allegedly committed torture or extrajudicial killing — if all legal avenues in their home country have been exhausted. It was filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco.
The defense said Viliena was not involved in violence and increased services while leading Les Irois, a town of around 22,000 people on Haiti's westernmost tip, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from the capital Port-au-Prince.
Viliena's attorney, Peter Haley told the 12-person jury during opening statements about a farmer's son who got an education, ran for mayor in 2006 and brought more paved roads, a medical clinic, waste pickup and a better education system — all lacking before his election.
Viliena is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., and he moved to the Boston suburb of Malden in 2009, drives a truck and is a “very productive member of the community,” Haley said.
Bonnie Lau, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the jury that Viliena violently suppressed and intimidated his political foes, even after he moved to the U.S.
“This case is about murder, torture, arson and abuse of power,” Lau told the jurors
The plaintiffs — David Boniface, Juders Ysemé, and Nissandère Martyr — lodged legal complaints against Viliena in Haiti, but he was ultimately released and never tried.
Lau said they are bringing suit in the U.S. because they were failed by the corrupt Haitian justice system.
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 New York judge 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 was elected as a candidate for the Haitian Democratic and Reform Movement and was backed by the Committee for Resistance in Grande-Anse, which according to the lawsuit dominates regional politics through patronage, threats and armed violence.
Armed paramilitary groups that ally themselves with particular political parties and candidates and function above the law are commonplace in Haiti, said Robert Maguire, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and Haiti expert who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The paramilitary groups provide muscle for the politicians, he said, and in return get material rewards such as motorcycles, jobs, government posts and access to power.
They act with impunity because of Haiti’s weak government and justice system.
“When there’s no police or judiciary to keep you in check, you feel like you can act like you wish,” he said.
Haley, the defense attorney, pushed back, asking Maguire if he was in Les Irois at the time of the alleged violence, and Maguire acknowledged he had never been to the town.
The plaintiffs allege that in 2007 Viliena — a loyalist of former Haitian President Michel Martelly — began a "campaign of persecution" against Boniface, a supporter of the political opposition, after he tried to defend a neighbor who Viliena allegedly assaulted for piling garbage in the street
Viliena allegedly led a group of men armed with guns, machetes and clubs to Boniface’s home. 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.
“They left his body on the street all night to send a message,” Lau said.
The suit also alleges that Viliena and his men beat and shot Ysemé and Martyr at a community radio station in 2008. Ysemé was blinded in one eye, while Martyr lost a leg, according to the suit.
Nissage Martyr has since died and his son has taken his place as a plaintiff.
The plaintiffs also allege that Viliane's allies burned down dozens of homes occupied by his political opponents in 2009. Even though Viliena was not present during the arson, his allies acted on his orders, Lau said.
The suit seeks unspecified damages.