A U.S. district court judge in New York has ordered the former leader of a right-wing Haitian paramilitary death squad to pay $19 million in damages to three women who survived torture and rape committed under his command. During Haiti's military rule from 1991 to 1994, the Haitian armed forces and the death squad known as FRAPH sponsored the systematic rape of pro-democracy women as a way to stifle dissent.
For many Haitians and Haitian Americans, the name of Emmanuel Toto Constant is a curse. He is the son of the late army chief of staff for Haiti's notorious dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.
When Haiti's democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from office in 1991, Constant organized a brutal paramilitary group called FRAPH.
Armed men belonging to the group systematically invaded homes of Aristide supporters, abducting men and raping women. Their rape victims ranged in age from 10-year-old-girls to women as old as 80.
The Center for Justice and Accountability and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of three survivors of the vicious attacks, all Haitian women in their forties. Pamela Merchant is Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, based in San Francisco.
"This marks the first time that anyone has been held to account for the campaign of systematic rape that Constant and his paramilitary death squads FRAPH led against the women who were pro-democracy activists in Haiti, or the wives and mothers of pro-democracy activities during the period of 1991 to 1994. It is an extraordinary day for accountability for these women," he said.
The United States intervened in Haiti in 1994, putting an end to FRAPH and military rule. Much to the outrage of the Haitian community, Constant made his way to the United States, where he had been living and working in New York City as a mortgage broker.
He is currently in jail on charges of grand-larceny, forgery and falsifying business records in connection with a mortgage fraud scheme in New York. He was sentenced in absentia in Haiti in connection with command responsibility for a massacre.
The Center for Justice and Accountability approached San Francisco* attorney Ivor Samson to ask if he would help them sue Constant. Samson explains why he agreed. "It seemed like an interesting case. Our firm has a long history of involvement in pro-bono political activities and this was really a chance to try and vindicate a terrible wrong by representing people that normally wouldn't have a day in court."
Under two federal laws, the Alien Torture Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act, foreign nationals who committed crimes against humanity abroad can be subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in the district where they live.
The three women who filed the lawsuit did so anonymously. They currently reside in the United States, but still fear reprisals for their children and families who live in Haiti.
* Report corrected to clarify attorney is from San Francisco, not New York - 10/26/2006