Three men who said they or their families were subjected to political persecution that included a killing, attempted killings and torture in their hometown in Haiti finally got justice after about 15 years on Tuesday when an American jury ruled in their favor and awarded them $15.5 million in damages.
David Boniface, Juders Ysemé and Nissage Martyr filed the civil suit against Jean Morose Viliena in in U.S. District Court in Boston in 2017 after the courts in Haiti failed to bring them justice, they said.
“I felt very happy to hear the result today, very proud that this is the result I got, and I was confident when I filed the complaint in the U.S. that I would get this result today,” Boniface said through a translator.
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 wrongdoing in their homeland if all legal avenues in their country have been exhausted.
The trial cast a spotlight on the wider issue of patronage, violence and intimidation in Haitian politics and the Caribbean nation’s often ineffective judicial system.
“I think our hope is that this verdict today will help pull forward accountability efforts in Haiti,” said Dan McLaughlin, an attorney for the Center of Justice and Accountability, which represented the men. But, he said. at the least it shows that people accused of crimes elsewhere can be held accountable in U.S. courts.
Viliena, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who now lives in Malden, Massachusetts, denied any wrongdoing. He showed no emotion as the verdict was read after a weeklong trial and about five hours of jury deliberations. He and his attorney, Peter Haley, declined comment as they left the courtroom.
Viliena was mayor more than a decade ago of Les Irois, a town of around 22,000 people on Haiti’s westernmost tip, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from the capital of Port-au-Prince.
The plaintiffs said in the suit that they or their relatives were persecuted Viliena and his political allies.
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.
The plaintiffs alleged that in 2007 Viliena — a loyalist of former Haitian President Michel Martelly — led a group of men armed with guns, machetes and clubs to Boniface’s home, and in his absence, shot and killed his younger brother, Eclesiaste Boniface.
“I feel very happy and feel well today, although that did not bring back my brother to me, the fact that justice was rendered; it’s big,” David Boniface said through the translator.
The suit also alleged that Viliena and his men beat and shot Ysemé and Nissage 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, Nissandère Martyr, replaced him as a plaintiff.
The plaintiffs also alleged that Viliane’s allies burned down dozens of homes occupied by his political opponents in 2009. The jury on Tuesday cleared Viliena of liabilty for the arson.
It's not clear if Viliena has the money to pay the damages.
“The clients have been clear with us that the driving force behind this case is not money damages," McLaughlin said.
“The point of the punitive damages is to send a message both to the defendant and to others who may be tempted to act like him that that kind of conduct is unacceptable,” he said.
The plaintiffs said their troubles are not over. Viliena still holds power in Haiti and they have been living in hiding away from their homes for years.
“Up to today, we feel very scared, very frightened for our families and even the people who helped us stay in hiding this whole time, even their lives are also targeted," Ysemé said through a translator.