In 2017, CJA and pro bono co-counsel, Dentons US 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. As the first effort to hold Viliena—a U.S. resident – accountable in a U.S. court, the lawsuit seeks to expose the ongoing problem of impunity for human rights violators in Haiti.
In 2010, Haitian authorities indicted Mayor Viliena for his role in the 2007 murder of CJA client David Boniface’s brother, Eclesiaste Boniface, and the 2008 shootings of CJA clients Nissage Martyr and Juders Yseme during a raid on a community radio station. Viliena was arrested in Haiti for these crimes but released following political pressure, whereupon Viliena fled to the United States. Despite the murder indictment, Viliena was reappointed as interim Mayor in August 2012 by Haitian President Michel Martelly.
On March 23, 2017 CJA and pro bono co-counsel, Dentons US LLP, now joined by Morrison & Foerster LLP, filed suit against Viliena in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. On March 24, 2017 —the day after Viliena was served with CJA’s and Denton’s complaint one of our clients, Nissage Martyr, died suddenly under suspicious circumstances. CJA, Dentons, and our local Haitian partner, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, are now supporting his son Nissandère Martyr’s legal petition to open a criminal investigation in Haiti. Nissandère is now also a Plaintiff in our U.S. case, following his father’s death.
On August 31, 2018, the district court denied Viliena’s motion to dismiss our clients’ claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act and Haitian law – allowing our claims of extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, torture, and arson to go forward. The judge dismissed our clients’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute on jurisdictional grounds, finding that the claims did not sufficiently “touch and concern” the United States to meet the Kiobel test set out by the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 2, 2018, Viliena filed a motion for reconsideration and certification of interlocutory appeal, asking the district court to either overturn its ruling or allow him to appeal the ruling immediately. This type of immediate “interlocutory” appeal is rare; generally, appeals on legal issues are heard after the conclusion of the case at the district court. On September 30, 2019, the district court denied Viliena’s motion for reconsideration but granted his request for certification of an interlocutory appeal.
Viliena filed a Petition to the First Circuit Court of Appeals on October 10, 2019, which we opposed on October 21, 2019. On February 2, 2020 the First Circuit Court of Appeals denied his motion to appeal. The Court of Appeals found that the Viliena had not demonstrated that immediate appeal is necessary.
Meanwhile, threats against our clients unfortunately continue. In August 2019, the federal court granted CJA’s request for an emergency protective order barring Viliena from having any contact with our clients, their families, or potential witnesses in our case against him. On December 19, 2022, the U.S. federal court granted a subsequent request for emergency protective order prohibiting Viliena from engaging in any actions, directly or indirectly, to intimidate or harm our clients, their families, or any potential witnesses or the families of those witnesses.
The case went to trial beginning March 13, 2023. Over the course of six days, the jury heard testimony by our three clients, two expert witnesses, and five fact witnesses. Viliena testified on his own behalf and was the only person to do so. On March 21, 2023 the jury returned a verdict finding Viliena liable for the extrajudicial killing of Eclesiaste and the torture and attempted extrajudicial killing of Juders and Nissage during the radio station attack. The jury did not find Viliena liable for the mass arson. The jury awarded $15.5 million in damages, including $11 million in punitive damages.
Less than 24 hours after the jury verdict, Viliena was arrested and charged with three counts of visa fraud for failing to disclose the human rights violations set forth in the civil case. Viliena remains in detention while the criminal case is pending.