A day after a federal jury in Boston ordered a former Haitian mayor to pay $15.5 million in civil damages for killing and torturing political opponents in his native country, he was arrested Wednesday on criminal charges for allegedly concealing his violent past to obtain legal residency in the United States 15 years ago.
Jean Morose Viliena, 50, of Malden, appeared in handcuffs in US District Court in Boston, just a few doors down from the courtroom where his six-day civil trial had been held. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he understood that he had been indicted on three counts of visa fraud and will be held without bail, at least until a hearing next week to determine whether he should be released while awaiting trial in the criminal case.
“That this defendant, a former mayor in Haiti, is alleged to have personally committed or ordered the maiming, harm, humiliation or death of his adversaries and then blatantly deceived our country to seek refuge here is not only unacceptable, it is a crime,” US Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement. “Our nation offers protection, assistance and asylum to those who are persecuted. People that perpetrate acts of violence and harm — and then allegedly lie about their conduct to US immigration officials — in their countries are not welcome here.”
An attorney appointed by the court to represent Viliena during the hearing Wednesday declined to comment on the charges.
The federal indictment alleges that Viliena, who served as mayor of Les Irois from 2006 to early 2010, was backed by a political machine called Korega, which used armed violence to target political opponents, local journalists, and activists.
The indictment “recounts horrific violence Viliena is alleged to have committed against the people of Haiti, both through armed groups he directed and by his own hand,” said Michael J. Krol, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New England. “He’s alleged to have lied about this violent past, evading the consequences of his actions and beginning a life here in Massachusetts.”
The indictment alleges that Viliena fled to the United States and falsely claimed on his 2008 application for a permanent resident card — commonly referred to as a green card — that he had not ordered or assisted in political killings or other acts of violence.
The indictment cites torture and violence that was allegedly orchestrated by Viliena and was described in detail by witnesses and victims who testified during the civil trial.
Three victims, David Boniface, Juders Ysemé, and Nissandère Martyr, who testified at the civil trial and were awarded millions of dollars each by the jury, said in statements released by their attorneys Wednesday that they were happy that Viliena has been charged criminally. But, two of the men said they also fear their families back in Haiti could face retaliation from his supporters.
“I feel excited about this result from the US justice system,” said Ysemé, who was shot in the face during a 2008 attack allegedly led by Viliena on a radio station in Haiti. “My only concern is that by now, my family members would face persecution. I am asking them to go into hiding as far as they can.”
Martyr, whose father was beaten and shot in the leg during the radio station attack, became a plaintiff in the case after his father died in 2017. He said he was happy about Viliena’s arrest, but worried about threats by his associates to “burn the city of Les Irois and the families of the people who sought justice.”
The indictment refers to testimony in the civil case, including allegations that in 2007, after Boniface spoke at a judicial proceeding in Haiti on behalf of a neighbor who had been assaulted by Viliena, the mayor led an armed group to Boniface’s house, where they shot and killed his younger brother, Eclesiaste Boniface, and then smashed his skull with a large rock before a crowd of bystanders.
The lawsuit was filed six years ago on behalf of the men by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights organization. It was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows civil claims to be filed in the United States against foreign officials who committed torture or extrajudicial killing in another country where they weren’t held accountable.
Ela Matthews, senior staff attorney for the Center for Justice and Accountability, said the organization welcomed Viliena’s arrest, but believes the government should bring additional criminal charges against him for human rights violations under the federal Torture Act because of the atrocities he committed.
“A jury in the United States has now found that what they say happened to them has happened to them,” said Matthews, adding that the victims believe the verdict sends a message to others who believe they can get away with human rights abuses.
It’s unclear whether Viliena has any assets, or whether the victims will ever be able to collect on their $15.5 million judgment.
But, Matthews said the case “has never really been about the money.” She added, “It’s about getting the opportunity for him to stand trial before a fair and impartial court for the atrocities he unleashed on the community.”
Boniface, who testified during the civil trial about the killing of his younger brother, said he had a message for everyone involved in violence in Les Irois: “Today it’s Jean Morose Viliena’s turn after 15 years of pursuing justice, tomorrow could be your turn if you perpetrate violence. There is no one who is God on earth. And with technology these days you can’t hide anywhere. Watch out.“
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.