As the mayor of a remote Haitian coastal town, Jean-Morose Viliena was above the law, according to those who say they suffered his wrath.
He incited mobs on murderous rampages in his native Les Irois, they allege, and burned his political opponents’ homes to the ground.
And when his alleged reign of terror appeared to be coming to an end, he fled — to Malden, of all places — and spent much of three years driving a school bus in the region. During that time, he also allegedly served as the appointed executive agent of Les Irois, despite a pending murder indictment and a residence in Malden.
Now, seven years after he fled Haiti, the law may have caught up with Viliena, who is the latest in a string of foreign officials brought before US courts to answer for alleged human rights violations committed in distant lands under a 1992 federal law.
A Globe review of lawsuits filed under that law, the Torture Victim Protection Act, shows many victims have succeeded in winning huge judgments against the officials of despotic foreign governments. In many of those cases, the plaintiffs were represented by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability — the same nonprofit organization that is spearheading the case against Viliena.
Collecting millions of dollars from far-flung tyrants and war criminals has often proven to be impossible. Yet some see the lawsuits as a last resort in places where the scales of justice are often weighed down by the thumbs of corrupt local officials.
“One of the things our clients are most motivated by is a sense of justice,” said Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a Boston-based organization also representing the plaintiffs.
A complaint filed last week in federal court in Boston accuses Viliena, 44, of various human rights abuses during his time as mayor of Les Irois between 2007 and 2009. He is accused of leading a mob in 2007 that killed Eclesiaste Boniface, the brother of one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs. In 2008, he allegedly led a raid on a radio station and had the two other plaintiffs shot.
Last week, one of the plaintiffs — Nissage Martyr, who lost a leg in the 2008 raid — died suddenly in Haiti just days after the lawsuit was filed. Martyr’s lawyers have called for an investigation and autopsy.
Though Viliena fled Haiti while under investigation in 2009 and was indicted on murder charges in 2010, Phillips said, he has never faced trial. Improbably, he was appointed interim executive agent of Les Irois in 2012 — an attempt, the complaint against Viliena alleges, to circumvent public elections.
“There has been a lack of political will to pursue justice,” Phillips said. “I think ‘corruption’ is probably the correct word to use for it.”
Approached outside his home on Summer Street this week, Viliena said he wanted to tell his side of the story but was in the process of finding a lawyer and would not discuss the case until he had legal representation. He did not return subsequent phone calls.
But in Facebook posts in recent years, Viliena has indirectly responded to the accusations against him. In 2015, around the time he left office in his last position, he posted a French document detailing the allegations against him and alluded, in Haitian Creole, to difficult situations and struggles he’s found himself in, but he pledged he would never falter in his commitment to the development of his home, Les Irois.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Utilities said Viliena’s school bus certificate was revoked last week after the charges against him came to light. The school bus company he worked for declined to comment for this story, and it was not clear which district or districts he’d served.
School bus drivers in Massachusetts must pass a criminal background and driving record check. Viliena — a lawful permanent resident of the United States, according to the complaint against him — has a clean driving record here. A check of area courts showed no brushes with the law. Viliena began driving for Uber in recent months, but last week, when word of his past surfaced in Boston, he was barred from Uber, according to the company.
Meanwhile, the case against him in Haiti appears to have been stalled for years, and Facebook posts suggest he’s traveled back and forth from the Boston area openly despite the indictment.
“The wheels turn really slowly in Haiti,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. The center conducts deep international investigations before bringing lawsuits, Gilmore said, and has successfully represented Haitian plaintiffs in at least two cases emerging from that country and others around the globe.
With limited exceptions, foreign governments can’t usually be sued in US courts. But the Torture Victim Protection Act allows plaintiffs to sue individuals who, under the auspices of the government, committed acts of torture or extrajudicial killings abroad — as long as the plaintiffs have exhausted all legal options in the country where the alleged abuses occurred and the courts have jurisdiction over the defendants.
In one case, a Florida jury found a former Chilean military official liable for the 1973 death of folk singer Victor Jara and awarded $28 million in damages to Jara’s family last June. Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, now 67, allegedly beat Jara for days before shooting him during Augusto Pinochet’s coup. Barrientos, who fled Chile in 1989, had been living in Florida for years before his location was revealed; the Center for Justice brought the lawsuit.
In 2007, the center won a $4.3 million judgment against Carl Dorélien, a leader in Haiti’s brutal dictatorship in the 1990s. Dorélien had won $3.2 million in the Florida lottery in 1997, and $580,000 of his remaining winnings were distributed to the plaintiffs — one whose husband had been killed in a massacre for which Dorélien had been found liable and another who had been tortured by Haitian armed forces.
Coincidentally, the first person to be sued under the law had Massachusetts ties. Guatemalan General Hector A. Gramajo was a student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government when Sister Dianna Ortiz sued him.
In 1995, Ortiz won a $5 million judgment against Gramajo, who was Guatemala’s defense minister when Ortiz was kidnapped from the backyard of a church retreat in 1989, she said, and repeatedly raped and burned, then lowered into an open pit filled with bodies. A federal judge found Gramajo liable for Ortiz’s abduction, rape, and torture.
Though the lawsuit appeared to scuttle Gramajo’s presidential aspirations back home, he never paid the damages. Instead, he returned to Guatemala, where he lived until he and his son were reportedly killed by bees in 2004.