There has been a grim development in a legal case leveling murder, crimes against humanity and arson allegations against a former mayor in Haiti who now is employed by a Medford school bus company and lives in Malden.
A plaintiff in the case has died unexpectedly.
Lawyers Urge Death Investigation
For Nissage Martyr, there was a difference of one day between triumph and tragedy.
On the first day, he and two other men became plaintiffs in a human rights suit filed Thursday in Boston federal court against Jean Morose Viliena, the former mayor of their small town in Haiti. On the second day, Martyr was dead.
"We do not know what the cause of death is," explains Scott Gilmore, Martyr's attorney with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Center for Justice & Accountability. "We and Martyr's family are urging the Haitian government to conduct a full investigation to determine the cause of death."
The plaintiffs in the Boston suit are from the small town of Les Irois in western Haiti. In an interview with WBUR two days before the filing of the suit, Martyr spoke passionately about seeking justice and holding the mayor accountable.
"Jean Morose Viliena is an eternal criminal, and for that I am asking the whole world to help put him behind bars," he said, through a translator. "Because if he gets arrested, his allies would see that and would understand that they can’t commit those crimes anymore."
Martyr and his fellow plaintiffs told us they fear that even from the U.S., Viliena could hurt them at any time.
"Given the timing — this was one day after bringing a human rights lawsuit and he showed no signs of illness — there is an urgent need to investigate this," Gilmore said.
Martyr was victim and witness to crimes alleged both in the civil suit in Boston and in a still open criminal indictment in Haiti that charges Viliena with murder. The suit contends Viliena ruled through the use of a political machine armed with paramilitary thugs.
In 2008, Martyr rented one of the rooms in his house to a new community radio station, the first radio station in the isolated community. Mayor Viliena called in on-air and vowed to shut it down.
The mayor allegedly made good on his threat by leading a machete- and gun-wielding paramilitary, known as "chimères," in an assault on the home. According to victims and witnesses, the indictment and the lawsuit, Viliena pistol-whipped Martyr and ordered an associate to shoot him. Martyr told us one of his legs was later amputated above the knee.
The mayor would eventually be arrested and jailed, but soon released provisionally. He left for the U.S. Here in Massachusetts, Viliena got his green card, drawing no apparent attention or interest regarding his activities in Haiti.
"In 2009, he returned from overseas and burned down 36 houses in the community. He never stays in the community. He comes, commits a crime, and then flees to the U.S. to hide," Martyr told WBUR.
One of the 36 houses put to the torch belonged to Martyr himself. He said he watched from a banana grove as his home burned to the ground while the chimères chanted, “Soldiers attack, no mother, no father, whoever dies, so what.”
Because he and his fellow plaintiffs had gotten no justice in Haiti after a decade-long struggle, Martyr said, they had come to a court in the U.S. They believed they were still at risk in Haiti from the man living in Malden.
"Were there any recent events that gave your plaintiffs a reason to fear for their well-being?" I asked.
"There were no specific events in recent months," Gilmore replied.
On Friday night, Martyr was watching soccer with friends when his attorney says he suddenly became violently sick to his stomach and collapsed. The first hospital he was taken to sent him to a more advanced hospital, but he died en route. The cause of death has not been established.
It may be no more than a coincidence of timing. But in view of the allegations, and the long history of intimidation, fear and impunity in Haiti, attorney Gilmore is calling upon the government to protect both the remaining plaintiffs and their families.
"To our knowledge, we are not aware that the Haitian government has provided any protection to them," Gilmore said.
Attempts to reach the Haitian Embassy in Washington and the Haitian police in Port-au-Prince and Les Irois were unsuccessful.
Viliena, the target of the lawsuit, did return calls from WBUR over the weekend. He says he wants to comment but needs to speak to a lawyer first. He said he had not heard about Martyr's death.
Martyr was 56 years old. He leaves a wife and eight children. And, a lawsuit in federal court seeking unspecified damages.
This segment aired on March 27, 2017.