Terror Campaign against Human Rights Defenders

Boniface v. Viliena

Boniface v. Viliena





In 2006, Jean Morose Viliena was elected Mayor of Les Irois, Haiti, a small town (pop. 22,306) on the isolated southwestern coast of Haiti. As alleged by CJA’s three clients, between 2007 and 2009, Viliena led an armed group of supporters in a campaign of terror against media activists and human rights defenders.

In 2017, on behalf of our three Haitian clients who alleged that they were victims of Viliena’s crimes, CJA and pro bono co-counsel, Dentons US LLP, now joined by Morrison & Foerster LLP, brought claims against Viliena in the U.S. for extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, torture, and persecution as a crime against humanity under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), as well as arson under Haitian law. However, in a shocking turn of events, one of our clients, Nissage Martyr, died suddenly on March 24, 2017—the day after Viliena was served with the complaint. After appearing to be in normal health, Mr. Martyr grew violently ill at a neighborhood party. Nissage’s son, Nissandère, has been substituted as a plaintiff in his father’s place.

The Complaint alleges that, as Mayor, Viliena had the backing of KOREGA – the Committee for Resistance in Grande-Anse – a powerful political machine that uses organized violence and political muscle to influence elections, interfere with investigations and prosecutions, silence critics, and suppress political opposition in cities and towns across Grand-Anse. In return for their loyalty, KOREGA provides its members with jobs and control of local institutions, such as hospitals and government posts.

The Complaint sets out how, once Viliena became Mayor of Les Irois, he led an armed militia of KOREGA supporters in a series of attacks designed to silence critics and neutralize KOREGA’s main political rival in the region–the Struggling People’s Party.

David Boniface, Nissage Martyr, and Juders Ysemé allege that they were harmed by Viliena’s assault on dissent in Les Irois. In July 2007, David Boniface, a human rights activist, denounced Viliena in court for assaulting a neighbor. Later that night, Boniface alleges that Viliena and his militia brutally murdered Boniface’s younger brother, Eclesiaste, in reprisal.

The following year, in April 2008, Viliena announced on-air that he was shutting down Les Irois’s first-ever community radio station, which was hosted in the home of Nissage Martyr. The Complaint alleges that Viliena and his armed supporters invaded Martyr’s home, surrounded and beat Martyr and shot him and Juders Ysemé, a young associate of the radio station. Their wounds were so severe that Ysemé was blinded in one eye, and Martyr’s leg had to be amputated.

This campaign of terror culminated in a rampage of arson in October 2009. Our clients allege that, in a single night, under the specific orders of Viliena, his supporters set fire to 36 homes of perceived political opponents, including our clients’.

Since 2007, Boniface and the other victims have filed multiple criminal and civil charges against Mayor Viliena in the courts of Haiti. At every step, their efforts have been thwarted by witness tampering, intimidation, and political interference by supporters of KOREGA and Mayor Viliena.

After Haitian investigators opened a murder inquest against Viliena in 2008, he fled to the United States and took up residence in Malden, Massachusetts. In January 2010, a Haitian court indicted Viliena for murder, battery, and property destruction. Despite the indictment, Haitian President Michel Martelly reappointed Viliena as interim Mayor of Les Irois in August 2012. Since then, Viliena has been able to travel freely between Haiti and his home in the quiet suburbs of Boston.

Viliena’s flight from justice finally ended on March 21, 2023, when a Boston jury found him liable for the extrajudicial killing of Eclesiaste Boniface and the torture and attempted extrajudicial killing of Juders Ysemé and Nissage Martyr during the radio station attack. The next day, federal authorities arrested Viliena and charged him with visa fraud for failing to disclose his human rights abuses laid bare at trial.

As a complement to our ongoing civil litigation, CJA and our long-standing partner Bureau Des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) sought precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of our clients, hoping that it would protect them against further violence and attack. On July 28, 2015, the IACHR granted the request and ordered Haiti to protect our clients, as well as other witnesses and human rights defenders from continuing threats against them. To date, the government of Haiti has failed to enforce these precautionary measures, and our clients remain under threat and in hiding. Indeed, the U.S. federal court has granted multiple protective orders barring Viliena from directly, or through his associates, contacting, threatening, or harming our clients, witnesses, and their family members.

The attacks on CJA’s clients in Les Irois occurred against a backdrop of political turmoil in Haiti following the 2004 coup and the rise of competing political factions and their affiliated militias. Despite the presence of MINUSTAH – the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti – and the slow restoration of democratic elections in 2006 and 2011, political violence – and blanket impunity supported by rampant corruption – continue to this day. Haiti’s political turmoil and weak rule of law have been compounded by a series of natural disasters, including the devastating 2010 earthquake.

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