Ex-Haiti mayor accused of killing, torture faces civil trial
The former mayor of a small Haitian town is on trial in the United States accused of terrorising his political opponents. The civil trial, which began Monday, highlights the violence and lack of accountability in Haiti’s politics.
The lawsuit against Jean Morose Viliena is being heard in US District Court in Boston and includes claims of killing, torture, and arson in the town of Les Irois, home to some 22,000 people.
Three Haitian citizens allege they or their relatives were violently persecuted by Viliena and his political allies. The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco.
The defence says the former mayor was not involved in violence and helped improve the town’s infrastructure.
His attorney, Peter Haley, painted a picture during opening arguments of a farmer’s son who got an education and ran for mayor in 2006 to bring the town into the modern world. He did so through more paved roads, a medical clinic, waste pickup, and a better education system – all lacking before his election, the defence said.
Viliena, a lawful permanent resident of the US, moved to Malden, Massachusetts, 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.
The plaintiffs allege that 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.
They are suing under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, a US 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.
Lau said they are bringing suit in the US because they were failed by the corrupt Haitian justice system.
“This case is about murder, torture, arson, and abuse of power,” Lau told the jurors.
Daniel McLaughlin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said before the trial that political violence in Haiti is “endemic.”
“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 is 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 US$19 million in damages to three women who said they were gang-raped by paramilitary soldiers under his command.
From late 2006 to early 2010, Viliena was the mayor of the town located on the westernmost tip of Haiti, about 140 miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince, the lawsuit says.