Updated at 3:55 p.m. March 22 with details of the visa fraud charges.
The day after a civil jury found a Malden resident liable for gruesome political violence during his tenure as mayor in Haiti, federal authorities in Massachusetts arrested him for allegedly lying about his past while applying for a green card in 2008.
Jean Morose Viliena, 50, was charged with three counts of visa fraud Wednesday afternoon, according to U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins' office. The federal prosecutor alleges Viliena lied about his violent past to begin a new life in Massachusetts.
“The atrocities alleged here — the extrajudicial torture, murder and attempted murder of multiple people — are hard to comprehend,” said Rollins in a media statement. “That this defendant, a former Mayor in Haiti, is alleged to have personally committed or ordered the maiming, harm, humiliation or death of his adversaries and then blatantly deceived our country to seek refuge here is not only unacceptable, it is a crime.”
Viliena, Rollins' office said, filled out a form at the U.S. Embassy Consular Office in Haiti in which he falsely responded to a standard question where he was asked if he had “ordered, carried out or materially assisted in extrajudicial and political killings and other acts of violence against the Haitian people.” He swore to a U.S consular officer that his response was true, and the State Department approved his application.
Just yesterday in the same court, three plaintiffs won a hard-fought case against Viliena. Jurors said he was responsible for the killing of the brother of one plaintiff, David Boniface, and the torture and attempted killing of the two others, Nissage Martyr and Juders Ysemé. As part of the ruling, the jury awarded the three a combined $15.5 million in damages.
Viliena’s attorney, Peter Haley, declined to comment on Tuesday, and couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The suit is the first brought against Viliena in the United States under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991.
It was filed by the San Francisco–based Center for Justice and Accountability, Morrison & Foerster LLP and Dentons US LLP, which are representing the three Haitian citizens pro bono.
Many of the same allegations detailed by The Center for Justice and Accountability for plaintiffs in a 2017 complaint are now being used by Rollins’ office in the immigration case against Viliena.
“The Center for Justice and Accountability welcomes action by the Justice Department but, given the strong evidence of torture and other abuses presented against Viliena last week during the civil trial, CJA calls for human rights criminal charges to be brought,” said Ela Matthews, a staff attorney representing the plaintiffs.
She said the organization calls on the State Department, U.S. Embassy in Haiti, and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to immediately work with the Haitian government to ensure the safety of all clients, witnesses and family members of those involved in the civil case.
In the civil court filings, Viliena denied the allegations and asked Judge Allison Burroughs to throw out the case over a lack of evidence. That was denied.
The lawsuit accused Viliena of killing Boniface’s brother, attempting to kill Ysemé and Martyr during a 2008 government raid on a community radio station, and burning down 36 homes in 2009. The alleged crimes occurred in Les Irois, a town in western Haiti.
“I have dedicated over 15 years to holding Mayor Viliena accountable for ordering the murder of my brother,” Boniface said. “Today’s verdict brings justice to me, my family and the other families of those who have been victims of Viliena’s campaign of terror. I believe justice uplifts a nation, and that’s why I have continued to pursue this case for all this time.”
The Torture Victim Protection Act allows civil suits to be filed in the United States against foreign officials who have committed torture or unauthorized killing, if all legal avenues have been pursued. In this case, the plaintiffs said they had filed several unsuccessful complaints in Haiti against Viliena and his allies since 2007.
Viliena fled to Massachusetts in 2009, and is a lawful permanent resident. He governed Les Irois remotely until early 2010, with occasional visits to the country.
Viliena was elected mayor of Les Irois as a candidate for the Haitian Democratic and Reform Movement in December 2006. The complaint says he was elected using voter fraud and violence, carried out by members of the Committee for Resistance in Grand-Anse — known in Haiti as KOREGA — a political group that uses armed individuals to gain power.
In 2007, Boniface, a human rights activist, was trying to assist a neighbor who had filed a complaint against Viliena and his allies. Viliena led an armed group to his home where they killed his younger brother, 23-year-old Eclesiaste Boniface.
Plaintiffs Ysemé and Martyr also alleged Viliena and the militia raided the community radio station Martyr helped set up in his home in 2008, with financial support from the political party opposing Viliena’s. A raid by local government officials, Viliena and the militia shut down the station and left Ysemé blinded, while Nissandère Martyr’s father Nissage was attacked and later had to have his leg amputated, according to court documents.
“Viliena personally supervised his mayoral staff and security detail and led an armed group in Les Irois aligned with Korega,” alleged Rollins office. “Under Viliena’s direct supervision, the Korega militia enforced Viliena’s policies by various means, including by targeting political opponents in Les Irois through armed violence.”
There was a criminal investigation in Haiti into the killing of Eclesiaste Boniface and the attack on the radio station; Viliena was detained and then released. He fled to Massachusetts, but continued to govern remotely, deploying militia to attack his opponents and occasionally returned for brief trips.
During one such trip, Viliena’s associates burned 36 homes in Les Irois, the plaintiffs alleged. The jury did not find Viliena liable for that arson.
After the verdict was read on Tuesday, the plaintiffs stood proudly outside the federal courthouse in Boston’s Seaport around a plaque describing justice.
When Nissage Martyr died under “unusual circumstances” the day after the lawsuit was filed in Boston, his son Nissandère Martyr took his father’s place as a plaintiff in 2017.
“Though I lost my father in 2017, I know if he were still living, he would be proud that I stepped into his shoes and continued the case with the other victims. We have pursued Viliena despite many obstacles. And despite his continued denials, today we received a positive verdict,” said Nissandère Martyr on Tuesday.
The ruling gives a sense of justice to the plaintiffs, but they’re worried about what awaits them at home, and about retribution toward their families from Viliena’s associates there.
Before and during the trial, courts have issued multiple protective orders after plaintiff attorneys were alerted to threats that were being made against family members and witnesses who testified in the case, and showed images of that to the judge.
“When Jean Morose and his people came to kill me, they killed my brother Eclesiaste instead. So I'm very fearful for my people that are still in Haiti,” Boniface told GBH News. “God protects them. And we also have an order from the court to protect them for people that have been threatened.”
On Wednesday, Ysemé said he was “excited” about the result from the U.S. justice system but he’s asked his family to go into hiding, expressing concern for his wife and children.
Martyr is happy, but worried about his mother and sisters in Haiti. ”Previously his [Viliena’s] associates in Les Irois have said that if Jean Morose Viliena is arrested, what they have done before will be nothing compared to what they will do now. They said they will burn the city of Les Irois and the families of the people who sought justice,” he said. “For that reason I don't feel well."
If the charges filed against him from Rollins’ office are found valid, Vilieana could face up to 30 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.
Rollins said gaining lawful entry into the country is a “privilege, not a right,” and that people who perpetrate “acts of violence and harm, and then allegedly lie about their conduct to US immigration officials — in their countries are not welcome here.”