American woman accuses U.S. troops in Haiti of mistreating her husband in jail


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The American wife of an arrested member of the Haitian elite here is accusing the U.S. military of mistreating her husband and abusing the human rights it came here to introduce.

Michele McGurk Mourra, 37, wife of Gerry Mourra, 38, was allowed to visit her husband Friday for the first time since his Oct. 2 arrest.

Mrs. Mourra, a U.S. citizen, said that he was cuffed and bound at the ankles, complained of being blindfolded and gagged, and accused his U.S. interrogators of torturing him by pouring water in his nose and ears, and by using his ankle manacles to throw him onto his head.

He told her that he was allowed to shower and clean his teeth for the first time six days after his arrest.

Mr. Mourra has not been formally charged but is being held on suspicion of posing "a danger to U.S. troops," according to his wife and his lawyers.

"When I see the same U.S. troops here in Haiti 'to restore democracy,' I don't see where the democracy is," Mrs. Mourra said.

U.S. denies allegations

Col. John Altenburg, the staff judge advocate for the intervention force and its top lawyer, denied any physical mistreatment of Mr. Mourra but said yesterday that he had been blindfolded and gagged when first apprehended. His sleep was "strictly controlled," to enable shifts of interrogators to question him, he said. "He was never denied sleep."

"There has been no mistreatment of Mr. Mourra," said Colonel Altenburg in a statement responding to questions submitted by The Sun.

Despite the immediate official denial, Colonel Altenburg said that there would be a full investigation of Mrs. Mourra's allegations and that the findings would be reported to the Red Cross.

"The Military Police battalion commander is currently looking into the allegations," Colonel Altenburg said.

"We do not discuss detainees and we have no information on specific detainees," a military spokesman said."

Mr. Mourra was one of several Haitians arrested in U.S. Army sweeps on Oct. 2. Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the U.S. intervention force, told reporters the next day that the United States was detaining four of Haiti's "top thugs/attache/ninja chiefs."

General Shelton was believed to be referring to Mr. Mourra, 38, his brother-in-law, Alex Frombrun, 41, and his cousins, Romeo and Ramses Halloun, 38 and 34, respectively.

"Is there proof about it?" Mrs. Mourra demanded. "They are individuals. They are businessmen. They are hard-working people."

The four and other Haitian detainees were taken to an interrogation center for questioning, U.S. officials said. A staff judge advocate and a military lawyer were present "to ensure no human or other rights violations occur during the process," a spokesman said.

After questioning, detainees are entitled to a hearing, and a lawyer of the Joint Forces Judge Advocates office may recommend their release.

Officials said that United Nations Resolution 940, authorizing the use of "all necessary means," allowed them to detain Haitian or U.S. citizens presenting a threat to stability for U.S. troops here.

Mr. Mourra and Mr. Frombrun run the La Famosa tomato paste and ketchup plant here, one of the few agro-industrial businesses that managed to operate during the embargo, although at a reduced level.

Mr. Mourra, according to his wife, also had a license as a gunsmith and was contracted to repair weapons for the Port-au-Prince police.

Romeo Halloun was the chief bodyguard of former Haitian strongman Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, who fled into exile last week. The Cedras security force was known as the "Black Ninjas" because of the black masks they wore. Ramses Halloun ran a store, according to the family.

Mrs. Mourra took her three children -- Gerry, 13, Steven, 10, and Derek, 8 -- to see their father, but only the eldest was allowed in, she said. The other two were left standing on the sidewalk outside the detention center.

She complained about this to Lt. Col. David Stahl, military liaison officer to U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing. Colonel Stahl said yesterday that he had written to the military detention authorities, asking that Mrs. Mourra be allowed to take her three children to see their father. He had not received an immediate reply.

"Hopefully, it will change," said Colonel Stahl, adding that Mrs. Mourra had not complained to him about her husband's treatment. "She was certainly agitated a couple times. No doubt about that," he said.

Mrs. Mourra told The Sun that her youngest son, Derek, had not spoken a word since his father's arrest two weeks ago and that he is under psychological counseling.

"My children are very traumatized," said Mrs. Mourra, who appeared extremely tense and distraught during an hourlong interview. "They are asking for their father every minute, every second since Oct. 2. I am like a palm tree with three monkeys clinging to me."

She choked back tears hours after she had left her husband, with whom she had a 15-minute meeting on an open-air bench in an industrial plant being used as a U.S. detention center.

"I didn't expect him to be tortured," Mrs. Mourra said. "When he told me that, tears came out of his eye. He is a strong man, but he was crying when he told me what they did to him."

Nancy Frombrun, 39, who has three daughters -- Sandy 18, Tatiana, 16, and Kristina, 11 -- was allowed to visit her husband, Alex, 41, shortly after his arrest.

She found him bound at the ankles, "morally down," "humiliated."

"They have been asking him questions which are not of any concern to him, such as what was the relationship with General )) Cedras and other people, and we really have no knowledge of that," she said.

Mrs. Frombrun said that she was a neighbor of the Cedras family and that her children had gone to the same school as the three Cedras children.

"Is this the reason? Because we were neighbors?" she demanded. "Because of that they arrest my husband? Come on." She said that her husband had never met General Cedras.

Graziella De-Vecchi of the International Committee of the Red Cross said that the organization's representatives had visited all Haitians held by the U.S. military but that its findings are confidential.

To those who have watched and read of the horrors inflicted upon thousands of poor Haitians, the complaints of Haiti's wealthy class about mistreatment could ring hollow.

But Joseph McFarland, Mrs. Mourra's Tampa, Fla., lawyer, said that even if Mr. Mourra were considered a threat, "he should not be going through what he's going through. There's been a denial of human rights here. These were not Haitians, these were U.S. military officers."

Mrs. Mourra's account

This, according to Mrs. Mourra, is what happened:

On Oct. 2, Mr. Mourra received a phone call that U.S. soldiers were in the vicinity of the La Famosa warehouse and he drove there.

Over his mobile communication unit, Mr. Frombrun and the Halloun brothers heard what was happening and also headed for the warehouse.

When Mr. Mourra arrived, the troops searched him but found nothing. The others arrived. Mrs. Frombrun said that her husband probably was armed with the personal weapon he was authorized to carry for protection.

The men had keys to the warehouse but were not permitted to open the door. The troops broke into the warehouse and searched it for arms. According to Mrs. Mourra, who saw the results of the raid on Cable News Network, a shotgun used for security, a machete and a BB-gun that her husband kept on the wall behind a desk were the only arms found.

The men were arrested. Mrs. Mourra learned of her husband's detention from a friend who saw him in an Army truck.

The next day, she and Patrick Woolley, a lawyer, went to Port-au-Prince's industrial park, which has been converted into a U.S. military base, to try to locate her husband.

"I asked, as an American citizen, to see the person responsible for the arrest of my husband," she said.

"They said in 15 minutes somebody would see me. Then, in 30 minutes somebody would be with me. They made me stay there two hours with my three sons, and they never greeted me. Then I left. I still had no information. No charges, no motives were given for his arrest."

While trying to see her husband, she received a mobile radio call, informing her that U.S. troops were raiding her house. She returned home to find military vehicles, including seven tanks, surrounding the house.

She said that she asked the commander, "Would you please ask your soldiers to put down your guns a little bit because you are traumatizing my children more?"

Garden is searched

The officer in charge told her that he had been informed that there were arms in the house. She said the troops searched the garden but did not enter the house.

Twice she returned to the detention center in the industrial park to see her husband but was turned back by U.S. soldiers. On Friday, Mrs. Mourra was allowed to see him.

"I saw with my own two eyes he had an ID number [bracelet] on his left wrist," she said. "Then I saw his two feet tied up, very tight, with plastic cuffs. He also had another black strap around them.

"He told me he was tortured. He told me how they did that, and that's when tears came out of his eyes," she said. "They put water in his nose. They put water in his ears. They took him by his plastic [ankle cuffs] and knocked him on the head several times. Afterwards, they asked him questions.

"He said that every 15 or 30 minutes they came and woke him up for something stupid. He didn't tell me what he was accused of. He told me they asked questions. For example: 'How would you kill Aristide?' His answer was [that] if someone wanted to kill Aristide he could just go up into a tree.

"Then they asked him: 'What about arms?' He said, 'I have a tomato paste factory.'

"They said they didn't need to know that information. They said, 'What about it?'

"He said, 'I have a legal license for the repair of arms that was given in January 1994.'

"He was not allowed to have a lawyer," she said.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad