Jean-Morose Viliena is a wanted man, under indictment for heinous crimes, including murder, in his native Haiti.
Improbably, he is also a resident of Malden, where he has a Social Security card and a license to drive buses. Probably few of his Massachusetts neighbors are aware that he is alleged to have participated in the murder and mutilation of constituents during a terrifying reign as mayor of Les Irois, a town of 22,306 in southwestern Haiti.
Viliena has thus far escaped trial, or justice in any form, but that could change. A federal lawsuit filed last week in Boston under the Torture Victim Protection Act seeks damages for his alleged offenses. It is spearheaded by two human rights organizations, the Center for Justice and Accountability and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Viliena was elected mayor of Les Irois in 2006. Not long after that, he began his alleged reign of terror against his political opponents, members of the Struggling People’s Party. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — originally three, now two — are residents of Les Irois.
The suit alleges that Viliena directed a brutal campaign against opponents of his political organization. It says Viliena and his associates killed one man, Ecclesiaste Boniface, in an attack that originally targeted his brother. In addition, Viliena and his associates badly beat and maimed two men in a raid against a local radio station established by the opposition party. Finally, it says that he and his cronies burned down 36 houses in what the suit describes as “a rampage of arson.” That attack, in 2009, left hundreds of people homeless.
Viliena fled to Massachusetts in 2009, shortly after criminal investigators launched a probe into his activities. But he remained mayor of Les Irois until 2010, apparently shuttling back and forth. Even since the end of his term, he has remained politically powerful, according to the lawyer for the plaintiffs, and sought to intimidate his opponents. He has also failed to show up for two criminal trials in Haiti, despite the gravity of the charges against him.
The plaintiffs “have brought this case in order to shine a light on human rights abuses committed by Viliena and to show he was protected in Haiti,” said Scott Gilmore, of the Center for Justice and Accountability, which is representing the victims. Gilmore says the justice system in Haiti is weak, and the powerful often go unpunished.
Viliena couldn’t be reached for comment, and details of Viliena’s life here are sketchy. He works for a bus company, and graduated last year from Bunker Hill Community College. Several of his henchmen have been tried and convicted in Haiti. But there’s no evidence that the Haitian government has gone out of its way to put him on trial. That, in itself, is disturbing.
The lawsuit has been in the works for some time. Aside from the complicated legal issue of suing someone for crimes committed outside the United States, there is the issue of the victims themselves. They are brave, but scared — as anyone might be in seeking justice against a man accused of crimes so ruthless, and believed able to manipulate his country’s justice system.
I mentioned earlier that there were three plaintiffs when the suit was filed on Thursday, but now there are two.
Nissage Martyr owned the house in which Viliena’s least favorite radio station was housed. In an attack in April 2008, Viliena is alleged to have beaten and pistol-whipped Martyr at his home. As he attempted to get away, the lawsuit says, one of Viliena’s associates shot him in the leg. The leg was later amputated above the knee.
While watching a soccer match Friday night in Les Irois, Martyr suddenly became violently ill. He died in an ambulance en route to a local hospital. The man had shown no previous symptoms of illness.
Martyr’s attorneys have called on Haitian officials to investigate his sudden death.