A former Haitian mayor, who was recently ordered to pay millions for killing and torturing people in his native country, pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court in Boston to charges that he committed visa fraud by allegedly concealing his violent past to obtain legal residency in the United States.
Jean Morose Viliena, 50, of Malden, was arrested last Wednesday, one day after a civil jury in the same courthouse ordered him to pay $15.5 million in damages to the victims and families of political opponents he allegedly had killed and tortured in Haiti.
A hearing that had been scheduled for Monday morning to keep Viliena jailed without bail until after his trial on three counts of visa fraud was postponed. His attorney, Julie-Ann Olson, said Viliena could not understand an interpreter who had been hired by the court to translate the proceedings because they spoke different dialects.
“It is more of a distraction than an assistance because they are so different,” Olson said of the translation provided by the interpreter.
US Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell agreed to postpone the hearing until another interpreter who speaks Haitian Creole could be found. The hearing is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
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 also 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 were allegedly orchestrated by Viliena and were described in detail by witnesses and victims who testified during the six-day civil trial. Three victims, David Boniface, Juders Ysemé, and Nissandère Martyr, filed the civil suit in 2017 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. A jury ordered Viliena to pay millions of dollars to each of the three men.
The indictment alleges that Viliena failed to disclose on visa documents that he and his associates shot and killed Boniface’s younger brother, Eclesiaste Boniface, in 2007 because David Boniface had been a witness at a judicial proceeding on behalf of a neighbor who had been assaulted by Viliena.
The indictment also alleges that Viliena and his men shot and beat Ysemé and Nissage Martyr during a 2008 attack on a radio station in Haiti. Ysemé was shot in the face, and Nissage Martyr was shot in the leg, according to testimony at the civil trial. Nissage Martyr died in 2017, and his son, Nissandère Martyr, became a plaintiff in the civil suit.
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, Ela Matthews, senior staff attorney for the Center for Justice and Accountability, which brought the suit on behalf of the victims, said the case “has never really been about the money. 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.”