Boston bus driver and former mayor in Haiti sued for human rights abuses in U.S. court

A boy stands on top of the hillside of town of Jeremie, Haiti, which is located in the same Grand’ Anse region as the town of Les Irois. The town’s former mayor, Jean Morose Viliena, who now lives in the Boston-area, is being sued in U.S. federal court for human rights abuses.
A boy stands on top of the hillside of town of Jeremie, Haiti, which is located in the same Grand’ Anse region as the town of Les Irois. The town’s former mayor, Jean Morose Viliena, who now lives in the Boston-area, is being sued in U.S. federal court for human rights abuses. AP

A Boston school bus and Uber driver who was appointed mayor of a small Haitian village in 2012 by former Haitian President Michel Martelly despite a murder indictment in the Haitian courts is being sued in U.S. federal court for human rights abuses.

A civil lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, accuses Jean Morose Viliena, the former mayor of Les Irois in Haiti’s Grand’Anse region, of torture, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing and arson. The suit was filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability and the multinational Dentons law firm. Lawyers are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against Viliena on behalf of three victims.

“The problem in Haiti … is if you have political connections, you can literally get away with murder,” said Scott Gilmore, a human rights attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability. “You can be handpicked to return to office.”

Viliena could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Gilmore said Viliena is being sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which gives foreign victims of human rights abuses the right to sue in U.S. courts whenever the perpetrator is found in the United States. He lives in Malden, Mass., and works as a licensed school bus driver, Gilmore said.

“He also appears appears to be working as an Uber driver,” Gilmore said, noting that Viliena’s Facebook profile said he studied at Bunker Hill Community College, though he was notified of the lawsuit Thursday on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

The lawsuit alleges that after his 2006 election as mayor, Viliena led an armed militia in a campaign of terror against media activists and human rights defenders in Les Irois. In 2007, his supporters led a reprisal attack against a human rights activist after the activist denounced him in court for assaulting a neighbor. The attack led to the death of the activist’s brother, who was slashed with a machete before being shot to death.

The following year, in April 2008, after Viliena announced on-air that he was shutting down a community radio station, his supporters invaded the host’s home. She was beaten and shot, and eventually had one of her legs amputated due to the wounds. Another person in the home was blinded in one eye by Viliena’s supporters.

“Viliena’s campaign to silence dissent,” the lawsuit alleges, “culminated in an arson rampage when he visited Haiti in October 2009. In a single night, Viliena’s supporters torched 36 homes of perceived political opponents in Les Irois.”

Viliena fled to the Boston area after a criminal investigation was opened against him in 2009, when a Haitian investigative judge indicted him for murder, battery and property destruction. The case remains open.

“All attempts to bring Viliena to trial have been blocked by witness tampering, political interference and his flight from justice,” the United Nations said in a 2013 report.

That same year, after Viliena’s term as mayor expired with no new elections planned, he was appointed by Martelly to serve as “interim executive agent,” or mayor, of Les Irois.

“Mayor Viliena is getting away with murder,” said David Boniface, the human rights activist who says his brother was one of Viliena’s victims in 2008. Boniface is one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The other two are Nissage Martyr, radio station host, and Juders Yseme, who was blinded in one eye.

Boniface sought justice in the Haitian courts. But rather than put Viliena behind bars, the Haitian government put him back in power,” Boniface said.

Viliena is not the first Haitian national to be sued in a U.S. federal court for human rights violations.

In 2007, a Miami federal jury ruled that former Haiti Army Col. Carl Dorelien was liable for the 1993 torture of a former Port-au-Prince labor leader and the 1994 death of a man during an infamous massacre that took place in Raboteau, a town in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.

Dorelien was among the officers who overthrew Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. He eventually fled to Florida, where in 1997 he won $3.2 million in the Florida Lottery. The plaintiffs, which included the widow of the Raboteau massacre victim, were awarded $4.3 million after the Center for Justice & Accountability sued on their behalf.

A year earlier, the Center’s clients had also won a $19 million judgment against Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the once-feared leader of the right-wing paramilitary group the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, accused of terrorizing, raping and slaughtering Aristide loyalists in the early ’90s. In a now-famous “60 Minutes” interview, the former strongman boasted that he had been on the CIA payroll.

“He was convicted in New York state of mortgage fraud, and he’s in New York State prison,” said Gilmore, whose group filed the suit alongside the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The Viliena lawsuit, Gilmore said, comes after almost 10 years “of repeated efforts by the victims to get justice in Haiti’s judicial system,” Gilmore said.

Noting that former Haiti dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was able to return to Haiti after 25 years in exile in France and died before having to stand trial on human rights abuse charges, Gilmore said, “the problem of impunity runs from the top of the food chain with people like ‘Baby Doc’ to the regional town mayor who ruled a town of 20,000 like it’s his own personal fiefdom.”

The case comes as a new government and new president, Jovenel Moïse, who ran under Martelly’s political party banner, take power in Haiti. Barely in office for a month, Moïse is already the target of a human rights campaign by organizations opposed to the government’s move to end the mandate of an independent United Nations human rights expert.

Gilmore, noting Haiti’s shoddy human rights record, said the case will show whether anything has changed with a new government.

“This is probably going to be a test case for this new administration in Haiti to see if there will be a continuation of Martelly’s practices of essentially appointing and giving immunity to these kinds of human rights abusers,” he said. “If that continues, we will see political violence and instability at all levels of government.”