Attorneys make divergent closings in trial of Haitian mayor

Mar 20, 2023, 12:00 PM

FILE - In this photograph provided by attorney Ela Matthews, David Boniface, Nissage Martyr and Jud...

FILE - In this photograph provided by attorney Ela Matthews, David Boniface, Nissage Martyr and Juders Yseme, from left, pose together in January 2014, in Haiti. An attorney for the three Haitian men who claimed in a U.S. lawsuit that the former mayor of their small hometown subjected his political opponents to violence and terror called the defendant “a small, petty tyrant” during closing arguments Monday, March 20, 2023. (Courtesy of Ela Matthews/Center for Justice & Accountability via AP, File)

(Courtesy of Ela Matthews/Center for Justice & Accountability via AP, File)

BOSTON (AP) — An attorney for three Haitian men who claimed in a U.S. lawsuit that the former mayor of their small hometown subjected his political opponents to violence and terror called the defendant “a small, petty tyrant” during closing arguments Monday.

But an attorney for the defendant spent his time poking holes in the testimony of witnesses and saying the plaintiffs were motivated by money when they brought the case against Jean Morose Viliena.

The case against Viliena, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who now lives in Malden, Massachusetts, shed light on the broader issue of political violence in the Caribbean nation and its ineffective judicial system.

Bonnie Lau, who represents the plaintiffs, asked the jury during closings to award $35 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

“We have the overwhelming weight of the evidence in our favor,” she said.

Peter Haley, Viliena’s attorney, said testimony from witnesses in the civil suit being heard in U.S. District Court in Boston was inconsistent, the witnesses were associated with the plaintiffs and his client could not be held responsible for the actions of others.

“There’s no coherent theory of oppression,” he said.

With closing statements completed, the jury started deliberating Monday.

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 crimes in their homeland — if all legal avenues in their home country have been exhausted. It was filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco.

Viliena’s lawyer said his client was not involved in violence and was responsible for increased services, such as improved infrastructure and better access to medical care, while leading Les Irois. The town is populated by about 22,000 people on Haiti’s westernmost tip, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from the capital Port-au-Prince.

The original plaintiffs — David Boniface, Juders Ysemé and Nissage Martyr — lodged legal complaints against Viliena in Haiti, but even though he was taken into custody at one point, he was ultimately released and never tried. Martyr has since died and his son, Nissandère Martyr, took his place as a plaintiff.

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 the lawsuit said dominates regional politics through patronage, threats and armed violence.

The plaintiffs said that in 2007, Viliena — a loyalist of former Haitian President Michel Martelly — began a “campaign of persecution” against Boniface, a supporter of the opposing Struggling People’s Party, after he tried to defend a neighbor who the lawsuit states Viliena assaulted for piling garbage in the street

The lawsuit alleges Viliena 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 states.

The lawsuit also alleges 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.

The plaintiffs also allege that Viliena’s allies burned down dozens of homes occupied by his political opponents in 2009. Even though Viliena was not present during the arson, he was heard on a cellphone giving the orders, an attorney for the plaintiffs said in court.

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.

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Attorneys make divergent closings in trial of Haitian mayor