February 26, 2003
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Five years after the assault by New York police that brought him a record $8.7-million settlement, Abner Louima is turning his attention to his native Haiti.
The man whose case came to symbolize police brutality in the United States says he's convinced he can make a difference in his impoverished homeland.
"Maybe God saved my life for a reason," Louima said in a rare interview during a visit last week. "I believe in doing the right thing."
Louima, who now lives in Florida, is setting up a nonprofit group, the Abner Louima Foundation, and hopes to raise money to build a community center and much-needed hospital in Haiti.
He says he plans to use his own money and donations to open community centers in Haiti, New York and Florida for Haitians and others seeking legal, financial or other aid.
In the hills that fringe Port-au-Prince, Louima also is paying school tuition for 14 poor children in Thomassin, a small community where he grew up.
"He's helping the kids a lot. Without this, they couldn't go to school," said Luckner Clairmont, a 24-year-old teacher at the concrete schoolhouse set amid fields where families eke out a living growing beans and bananas.
Few houses in the neighborhood have phones, blackouts are common and regular work is rare.
Many parents can't afford the tuition of $5.20 a month. "At least with (Louima's) money we're able to pay some of the teachers," Clairmont said.
Nearby, chickens scratch in a yard where Louima spent his early years. Nowadays he lives in the Miami area, but when he visits he brings clothing, jewelry and cash to his grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Louima left the countryside when he was 14 to attend school in Port-au-Prince. He followed his parents to New York City in 1990 and worked as a security guard and car salesman.
His life changed forever on Aug. 9, 1997, when he was sodomized with a broomstick in a police precinct restroom after being arrested in a brawl outside a Brooklyn nightclub. Louima suffered severe internal injuries.
One officer is serving 30 years for the attack, and another is serving a five-year term for perjury.
Louima sued and in 2001 the city and police union agreed to pay $8.7-million, the largest settlement ever in a police brutality case in New York. After legal fees, Louima walked away with about $5.8-million.
Now the 36-year-old wears a gold watch and owns homes in suburban Miami and Port-au-Prince, plus investment properties in Florida.
Louima moved to Florida with his wife and children in 2001. His daughter is now 12 and his sons are 6 and 3.
"The publicity in New York wasn't really affecting me directly, but on the other hand it was affecting my children ... so I chose to leave," he said. "I can go to someplace in Miami and no one knows who I am.
"I try right now to lead a normal life, which I missed for the past five years," said Louima, who enjoys watching his kids play basketball and soccer.
In Haiti, Louima has met with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest whom Louima happens to know from his school years. Louima wouldn't say what they discussed, saying it had to do with "personal things."
He said he takes no side in Haiti's politics but hopes its leaders will find ways to improve life for the country's poor. Hunger is widespread, and a vast majority live on $1 a day or less.
By giving back to Haiti, Louima said he aims to set an example.
"I always have hope," he said. "And something must be done."