US jury orders former Haiti mayor to pay $15.5m for rights abuses

A US lawsuit accuses the erstwhile mayor of a rural Haitian town of murder, attempted killings and torture.

Haiti mayor
Former Haitian Mayor Jean Morose Viliena departs a federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was ordered to pay $15.5m for violently targeting political opponents [Steven Senne/AP]

A federal jury in the United States has ordered a former Haitian mayor to pay more than $15.5 million in response to a lawsuit alleging that he led a campaign of political persecution.

Tuesday’s decision from a US District Court in Boston found Jean Morose Viliena liable for an array of allegations, including that he was involved in a killing, attempted murder and torture against political rivals.

The lawsuit was brought by three men who said they and their families were targeted when Viliena was the mayor of the rural town of Les Irois more than a decade ago.

While the jury’s decision was made in a civil case and has no criminal implications, the plaintiffs hailed the order as a “victory”.

“Today’s verdict brings justice to me, my family and the other families of those who have been victims of Viliena’s campaign of terror,” one of the plaintiffs, David Boniface, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Boniface, together with Juders Yseme and Nissage Martyr, filed the lawsuit in 2017 under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1991 US law that allows civil lawsuits to be brought against foreign officials accused of wrongdoing, if all legal avenues in their homelands have been exhausted.

The lawsuit alleged that, in 2007, Viliena led armed men to Boniface’s home, where they beat and fatally shot his brother.

The then-mayor later mobilised a group in 2008 that beat and shot Martyr and Yseme at a community radio station, according to the complaint. It added that Martyr lost a leg and Yseme was blinded in one eye.

The lawsuit also said that, in 2009, Viliena coordinated arson of dozens of homes occupied by the plaintiffs and people associated with the political opposition in Les Irois, which has a population of about 22,000 people.

The three men had previously tried to hold Viliena accountable in a Haitian court, but he was ultimately released and never tried.

The lawsuit plays out as Haiti faces compounding crises, including repeated natural disasters, a cholera outbreak and the increased influence of powerful gangs, particularly in the wake of the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

It has also highlighted the limits of Haiti’s justice system after years of upheaval.

One plaintiff in the case, Martyr, died after filing the US lawsuit. His son Nissandere Martyr replaced him as a plaintiff.

Viliena — who has since relocated to the US and currently lives in Malden, Massachusetts, where he works as a truck driver — has denied being directly responsible for the violence.

The jury on Tuesday found him not liable for burning down the plaintiffs’ homes.

Ela Matthews, a lawyer for the Centre for Justice and Accountability, which represented the plaintiffs, said Tuesday’s verdict “represents a 15-year-long struggle for the plaintiffs and the people of Les Irois for justice”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies