Legal Victory Leads to Historic Recovery for Massacre Survivors in Haiti

 On May 16, victims of the infamous Raboteau Massacre in Haiti received over $400,000 in court-awarded damages. The historic recovery is the result of a 14-year struggle fought by the victims and their families in the courts of Haiti and the United States.

“The Raboteau victims deserve payment of the $400,000 for their injuries and suffering in 1994.  But they have also have earned this award through their tireless and courageous efforts for justice over 14 years and in two countries” said Pamela Merchant, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA).  

The Raboteau Massacre was a joint military/paramilitary attack on a pro-democracy neighborhood during Haiti’s 1991-1994 de facto military dictatorship, carried out on April 22, 1994.  The victims started fighting for justice the next day, when they filed complaints in Haiti with a local judge.  The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a public interest law office in Port-au-Prince, took up the case in 1996, filed complaints against senior military and paramilitary leaders, and brought the case to a successful 6-week trial in Haitian courts in 2000.  The Raboteau trial was praised by international observers as fair to victims and accused alike, and is considered one of the most important human rights trials ever in the Western Hemisphere.  The Haitian trial resulted in the convictions of 53 soldiers and death squad members (37 of them in absentia), and a damage award of 1 billion Haitian Gourdes (US $26.3 million).

One of the key defendants in the Raboteau Massacre trial was Col. Carl Dorélien a member of the de facto dictatorship’s Military High Command who fled to Florida after democracy was restored to Haiti.  Ironically, Dorélien’s presence in the United States became known when he won $3.2 million in the Florida State Lottery.

In 2003, along with co-counsel Holland & Knight LLP and attorney John Thornton, CJA filed suit to enforce the Haitian judgment in Florida state court against Dorélien.  CJA prevailed when the [court] ruled that the human rights judgment in Haiti is applicable in the U.S. against Dorélien.  This ruling was an extremely important step forward in the international justice movement.

CJA also brought a federal lawsuit against Dorélien under the Alien Tort Statue and the Torture Victims Protection Act on behalf of one of the survivors of the Raboteau Massacre and a former union leader, Lexiuste Cajuste, who was brutally tortured by the Haitian military in 1993.  In February 2007, a federal jury in Miami found Dorélien liable for torture, extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention and crimes against humanity suffered by Mr. Cajuste and the Raboteau victims.  He was ordered to pay a total of $4.3 million to the plaintiffs in compensatory and punitive damages.  Dorélien has now exhausted all of his appeals.

“The damage award is a victory for all Haitians,” said Mario Joseph, the Managing Attorney of the BAI, and the lead lawyer for the Raboteau Victims Association.  “The Raboteau Trial in Haiti built faith in justice, because it showed that poor people were able to use the courts to protect their rights against the rich and powerful.  The U.S. case will build faith in solidarity, because CJA and other U.S. lawyers showed that people in the U.S. will work as long and as hard as necessary to vindicate our rights.”

 “This day was a long time in coming, but it could not have come at a better time,” said Brian Concannon Jr., Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), who has worked on the case since 1995.  “With Haiti caught in a food crisis, the money will be a life-saver for some.  With Haiti struggling through a democratic transition, the lesson that persistent, non-violent fighting for justice can bear fruit can be an inspiration for the whole country to work for a more stable and just future.”

CJA is a San Francisco-based human rights organization dedicated to ending torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress. CJA uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.

BAI and IJDH are partner organizations based in Haiti and the U.S.  BAI is public interest law office serving Haiti’s poor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.   IJDH is an Oregon-based human rights organization that works for constitutional democracy, justice and human rights in Haiti through litigation, information dissemination and grassroots advocacy.

Holland & Knight is among the world’s 15 largest law firms, providing representation in litigation, business, real estate and governmental law.

The Raboteau victims’ fight for justice was the subject of the award-winning documentary, Pote Mak Sonje: The Raboteau Trial,