Belance v. FRAPH – International Human Rights and Solidarity – CCR Docket Fall 1996

CCR’s suit against right-wing Haitian terrorist group may be entering a conclusive stage.

In June 1994 CCR filed a $33 million civil damage suit against the Front for Advancement and Progress in Haiti (FRAPH) on behalf of Alerte Belance, a young mother of three who was nearly hacked to pieces by FRAPH members.  After nearly 18 months during which there was no reaction from FRAPH, CCR filed a motion for a default judgment in January 1996–meaning that in the absence of any meaningful response the court could consider that the charges made against the organization could be true.

However since then the question of forcing the U.S. government to release documents in its possession–documents that might have bearing on this case–has come to the fore. CCR filed third party subpoenas on the central Intelligence agency., the Department of defense, and the Department of State. In reaction, the government produced some documents, but its incomplete response delayed the court’s ruling on the default judgment.

The need to obtain the documents arose in the September 1995 after the Department of Justice revealed in correspondence to CCR that the Department of Defense had in its possession 60,000 pages of documents seized form FRAPH headquarters. Press reports added that U.S. troops had seized a total of more 150,000 pages of documents from the headquarters  of the Haitian Armed Forces and FRAPH, but refusing to give them to the Haitian government. CCR attorneys received unconfirmed reports that Belance’s photo was among the captured documents.

When the suit was filed, it broke new ground in its attempt to hold an organization, rather than an individual official, accountable.

Belance was captured at home by four armed FRAPH members in Port-au-Prince in October 1993 after her husband, an Aristide supporter, fled. The thugs almost decapitated her, hacked off her right arm with a machete and slashed her face, neck and mouth, and left her for dead in a nearby “killing field.”

Now deaf in one ear and wearing a prosthetic arm, Belance stated that she was “seeking justice” through her lawsuit, which requested damages for attempted summary execution, torture, cruel, in human or degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, assault and battery, and kidnapping.

Belance’s  suit is based on a winning legal precedent CCR’s 1980 case, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, which relied on the 200-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act to establish that human rights violators can be successfully sued by their victims in U.S. courts, even when the violations occur abroad, so long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

CCR brought the case originally on behalf of the family of a Paraguayan teenager who was tortured to death  by an official in Asuncion, Paraguay. The Filártiga family later located the torturer in Brooklyn and sued him there.  After trial the family won a $10 million judgment against the official, but was never able to obtain any of his actual funds or property.

So far successful Filártiga suits have involved human rights violators from Paraguay, Guatemala, Haiti, East Timor, and Ethiopia. An important pending suit is Bosnia Herzegovina.

Beth Stephens, Michael Ratner, Jennifer M. Green, Mary Boresz Pike, Mahlon Perkins, Matthew Chachere, Harold Hongju Koh, & Ronald. C. Slye of the Yale Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic, Ira Kurzban and Paul Hoffman