Paul v. Avril Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

Paul v. Avril is a case in which Haitian President Proper Avril was charged with human rights violations.

Months before the September 1991 coup which overthrew Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, CCR sued the former military dictator Proper Avril in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida on behalf of six prominent Haitian political activists, including Evans Paul, Mayor of Port-au-Prince.

Plaintiffs sued Avril under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), following the precedent of CCR’s case Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, which allowed victims to sue their abusers in U.S. courts for human rights violations such as torture or murder, even if the violations occurred abroad, as long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

The suit asked for compensatory damages for the torture, cruel and degrading treatment, and false imprisonment which plaintiffs suffered under Avril’s military rule. While Avril’s motion to dismiss the case was pending before the court, he left his Miami home to take up residence in the Dominican Republic. Avril then moved back to Haiti in September 1993 and demanded that he be interrogated there. The court ordered Avril to return to Miami in October 1993 for his deposition, but he did not appear. CCR attorneys moved in November 1993 for a default judgment, meaning that since Avril did not challenge the plaintiffs’ assertions, they can be considered true.

Ironically, although Avril claimed through his lawyers that he had no documents relating to his military regime, his published book on the lawsuit contained an appendix of more than 100 pages of documents (although none of them, according to CCR attorneys, substantiated his claims of innocence).

The origin of this suit can be found in the struggle for democracy in Haiti. Avril was a close adviser and financial director for the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980’s. 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 Avril’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. In January 1990, Avril illegally declared a state of siege and intensified the crackdown on political opposition, until he was replaced by the short-lived democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A tragic commentary on the violence and repression in Haiti is that the provisional government’s Minister of Justice, Guy Malary – who was also local counsel to CCR on this case – was shot down in broad daylight in Port-au-Prince in October 1993, a signal by Haiti’s current military leaders of their refusal to accept reinstatement of President Aristide.

In July 1994 a federal magistrate awarded a $41 million damage judgment to the victims of Prosper Avril. The decision in this case – the first in which any Haitian dictator or member of the military was ever held responsible in any court of law anywhere for human rights abuses  - was another success using the principle established in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala.