Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Civil unrest. Government corruption. Global pandemic. These are just some of the challenges MoFo’s pro bono team, led by partner Bonnie Lau, have had to face in our quest for justice for our Haitian clients, who have been violently persecuted for speaking out against human rights violations and challenging corruption and brutality by the former mayor of Les Irois, Haiti.
MoFo and co-counsel Dentons US LLP have been honored by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) with the Partner in Justice Award, which will be presented during CJA’s virtual Un-Gala event on May 24-28, 2021. “This award recognizes the extraordinary partnerships that make justice possible,” said Carmen Cheung, Executive Director of CJA. “Litigating transnational human rights cases requires expert lawyering and a deep commitment to our clients. Bonnie Lau and her team have all that and more – going above and beyond at every step of the way in this complex case. It is our privilege to have them as our co-counsel.”
Bonnie and CJA have partnered to investigate this case since 2013, and filed the Boniface v. Viliena lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court in 2017. The high-profile human rights case seeks to hold Jean Morose Viliena, a former Haitian mayor living outside Boston, accountable for crimes committed against our clients and other residents of Les Irois. Over the years, a number of lawyers from CJA, Dentons, and MoFo have joined the effort, each making significant contributions. Today, the MoFo team includes Bonnie and associates Sarah Vandervalk and Ben Kagel. The Dentons team currently includes associates Connor Scott and Tony Lu. The CJA team is led by Daniel McLaughlin and Ela Matthews, and the entire team also works closely with Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance.
In July 2007, David Boniface, a human rights activist, denounced the defendant in court for assaulting a neighbor. Later that night, the defendant and his militia, armed with machetes, clubs, picks, and guns, went to Boniface’s home in reprisal. David was not home, so they dragged Boniface’s younger brother Eclesiaste out into the street and brutally beat and murdered him. In 2008, the first-ever community radio station was established in Les Irois and hosted in the home of Nissage Martyr. Fearing political opposition speech, the defendant threatened to shut down the radio station. Shortly thereafter, the defendant and his militia invaded Martyr’s home, surrounded and beat Martyr, and shot him and Juders Yseme, a young associate of the radio station, when they tried to escape the attack. Their gunshot wounds were so severe that Yseme was blinded in one eye, and Martyr’s leg had to be amputated above the knee. In October 2009, the defendant’s campaign to silence dissent culminated in an arson rampage where his militia set fire to 36 homes of perceived political opponents in a single night. The defendant fled to the suburbs of Boston in 2009 to avoid criminal charges in Haiti.
The day after the U.S. lawsuit was served on the defendant in March 2017, Martyr suddenly became violently ill and died under suspicious circumstances. Undaunted, our legal team has pressed forward and secured a number of significant litigation victories, including defeating the defendant’s motion to dismiss certain claims under the Alien Tort Statute, defeating a related petition for interlocutory appeal to the First Circuit, and winning a recent motion to compel further discovery. The team has also persevered through fact discovery and depositions, despite their Haiti travel plans being repeatedly thwarted by hurricanes, political instability and violence, and the global COVID-19 pandemic. The team secured an emergency protective order to protect our clients and witnesses from the defendant’s ongoing threats and intimidation, and successfully pivoted to complete investigation interviews and depositions remotely.
“It has been a great privilege to work with our remarkable clients, whose courage and determination to hold the defendant accountable in the face of tremendous personal risk, inspires our team every day,” remarked Bonnie. “We look forward to taking this case to trial and securing the justice and redress that has eluded our clients for over a decade.”
In this video clip, Bonnie discusses the high-profile Boniface v. Viliena case and accepts the Partner in Justice Award on behalf of the MoFo and Dentons legal team: