Several months before the September 1991 coup which overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, CCR sued the former military dictator, Prosper Avril, in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on behalf of six prominent Haitian political activists.
Among them were Evans Paul, Mayor of Port-au-Prince, and Senator Serge Gilles, who have since been replaced by the coup leaders. Plaintiffs sued Avril under the Alien Tort Claims Act, following the precedent in CCR’s case, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, which allows victims to sue their tormentors in U.S. courts for egregious human rights violations such as torture or murder, even when the violations occurred abroad, so long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant.
The suit demanded millions of dollars in damages for the torture, cruel and degrading treatment, and false imprisonment which plaintiffs suffered under the military rule of Lieutenant General Avril. In a supportive move, the Aristide government had submitted a waiver of immunity holding Avril liable for torture, therefore furthering the efforts of the case.
In the weeks following the anti-Aristide coup, Paul was arrested and brutally beaten at the Port-au-Prince airport in front of a delegation of negotiators from the Organization of American States. He was tortured that evening and released the next day. He then went into hiding. Except for Gerard Laforest who was in Paris working on an educational exchange program when the coup occurred, Paul and other plaintiffs remained in hiding for months after the coup. They currently are part of the formal opposition to the provisional government set up by the military.
Avril, now a resident of Miami, Florida, was a close adviser and financial director for the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s. Upon assuming the presidency in a 1988 coup, he suspended all constitutional limitations on his power. On November 1, 1989, plaintiffs Evans Paul, Jean-Auguste Mesyeux, and Marino Etienne, known as the “Prisoners of All Saints Day,” were arrested, interrogated, beaten and tortured by AvriI’s soldiers, just after the three activists announced a month-long national campaign of non-violent protest calling for democratic reform in Haiti. Bruised and bloodied, they were paraded by the Avril government before Haitian national television to serve as an example of the fate of those who seek reform. On January 20, 1990, Avril illegally declared a state of siege and intensified the crackdown on political opposition. During this particular crackdown, Serge Gilles, Gerald Emile, “Aby” Breen, and Gerard Laforest were illegally arrested and tortured.
Since spring 1991, attorneys for Avril and CCR have filed various motions, briefs, and opposition briefs on a motion to dismiss. As of this writing, the federal court has made no rulings because of the large backlog of cases.
Jose Luis Morin, Beth Stephens, Michael Ratner, David Cole, and Peter Weiss, with Ira J. Kurzban; Harold Hongju Koh and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic of Yale Law School