May 18, 2017 / 8:18 PM / 2 months ago

Ex-Haitian mayor declares innocence in U.S. human rights lawsuit

3 Min Read

BOSTON (Reuters) - The former mayor of a rural town in Haiti facing a U.S. lawsuit accusing him of murdering, torturing and burning the homes of his political opponents appeared in a federal court in Boston on Thursday and declared his innocence.

Jean Morose Viliena fled Les Irois, Haiti, in 2009 after authorities began investigating. He then obtained a school bus driver license while living in Malden, Massachusetts, according to lawyers for three of his former constituents.

They said Viliena, backed by an armed militia, committed human rights abuses from 2007 to 2009 by using violence against perceived political opponents or people who complained about how he governed the town of about 22,300 people.

In court, Viliena denied the allegations. He said he could not afford an attorney and without assistance faced being overwhelmed by lawyers who brought the case at the Center for Justice and Accountability and the law firm Dentons.

He said the plaintiffs had made a settlement offer of $30 million, but that an attorney he consulted believed they were not interested in money but instead wanted "to make an example of me, whether or not the charges against me are true or false."

"If I am forced to represent myself in this case, there's no chance for me to receive justice," Viliena said. "I am innocent of these charges."

U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel urged Viliena to contact bar associations and law schools to find a lawyer.

"You cannot do this on your own," she said.

The Center for Justice and Accountability has won civil judgments in U.S. courts against two former Haitian military officials accused of overseeing violence against civilians and then fleeing Haiti.

It said that the plaintiffs brought the lawsuit in March because Viliena has not been convicted in Haiti.

The lawsuit took a turn a day after it was filed, when one of the three people, Nissage Martyr, fell suddenly ill while watching football with neighbors in Les Irois and died on the way to hospital.

Martyr's wife has since filed a criminal complaint and request for authorization of an autopsy in Haiti, according to court papers. The death remains under investigation.

Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool

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