BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Two lawyers who have taken on everyone from military strongmen to the United Nations in their fight for the poor of Haiti were honored yesterday with the 22nd annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice.
Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon received the award in an afternoon ceremony before a packed ballroom at the Hawthorne Hotel.
“Mario and Brian are the most courageous, persistent and effective human rights activists I have met during 30 years of working in Haiti...” Dr. Paul Farmer, cofounder of Partners in Health, a leading health organization in Haiti, wrote in introductory remarks read to a crowd of more than 200 at yesterday’s ceremony.
Joseph, a native of Haiti, was a lead attorney in a landmark legal case, the prosecution of 59 military and civilian paramilitary fighters involved in what became known as the Roboteau Massacre.
In 1994, the defendants led an early-morning assault on Roboteau, a shanty town where demonstrations had been held in support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president who had been deposed in a military coup.
The attackers went door to door, beating and shooting residents. Estimates of the number killed ranged from six to more than 20.
Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, helped secure convictions of some of the country’s most feared military leaders during a six-week trial. The New York Times called him “Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyer.”
Concannon, a Boston native who is director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, helped prepare the prosecution in the Roboteau case.
He also sued the United Nations for billions of dollars on behalf of the families of thousands of victims who died or became ill from a 2010-11 cholera outbreak which medical panels ruled most likely was caused by U.N. peacekeepers.
In accepting the award, Concannon lauded the courage of the many people in Haiti who work closely with their two organizations, and also singled out his corecipient for praise.
“Mario is under pretty significant physical danger for his work,” he said.
Two Salem State University students, Haitian native Kinnflo Michel, and Haitian-American Naomie Pacoulouce, spoke at the ceremony.
Dignitaries in attendance included Congressman John Tierney, Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Sen. Joan Lovely and state Rep. John Keenan.
The Salem Award honors individuals whose lives and work emulate the moral lessons learned from the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Past winners include Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Eric Reeves, an activist for peace in the Sudan; Fahima Vorgetts of the Afghan Women’s Fund; and Chinese dissident Harry Wu.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.