Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Secrets They Keep: Why Canada Fears Afghan Interpreters


When the first planeload of former Afghan interpreters disembarked at Toronto’s airport the evening of August 4, they were greeted by a number of Trudeau cabinet ministers. Conspicuously absent from the welcome party was War Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Sajjan’s absence was telling for a government so focused on photo-ops celebrating its alleged benefaction. During the following weeks, as thousands more have desperately sought refugee flights to Canada, there are quiet whispers that could point to why Sajjan was, and remains, far away from the cameras with each new arrival. Those whispers could be crystallized in two words. “Everybody knew.”

What does everyone know? Afghan refugees in Canada are not likely to go on record at this time, but a number have shared with me what is common knowledge both in their diasporic communities and back home. In essence, among the individuals Canada is bringing here – those who worked so closely with Canadian Forces during the occupation of that country – there will be interpreters, fixers, drivers, liaisons, and others who were “in the room” or knew what was going on there when Canadians were knowingly transferring farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, and countless other Afghan civilians into the hands of torturers.

Of course, Canada does have a responsibility to evacuate as many of its former Afghan contractors and their families as possible. These are individuals who were placed in an impossible situation: to feed their families, they took on relatively well-paying, high-risk  gigs facilitating the work of a brutal NATO occupation force which killed, tortured, and injured hundreds of thousands of people. While many Canadian veterans have led a valiant struggle for well over a decade to help get these individuals and their families out, that campaign does not appear to have received one iota of support from the generals, other military brass and politicians who have a vested interest in keeping out potential witnesses to Canadian war crimes in Afghanistan.

It has been heartbreaking watching the crush at the Kabul airport. But few seem to recall that this last-minute dash – as the Taliban attempt to take control of Afghanistan – could have been prevented if there had been a serious commitment to the lives of those in Afghanistan who enabled the Canadian military occupation.


Canada Never Cared

In 2009, then Immigration Minister Jason Kennney announced with much fanfare a program to accept interpreters on a fast-track, yet two years later, the Canadian Press  reported that over two thirds of Afghans who worked with the Canadan military in Kandahar had been turned away. “Working as an interpreter for NATO forces in southern Afghanistan was akin to having a Taliban bull’s-eye on your back,” the report noted. “Stories of night letters, threatening phone calls, abductions and even hangings were part of the job. As interpreters also travelled with soldiers and diplomats, at least six were among those killed during the IED strikes that claimed 161 Canadian lives.”

Then as now, the rules of the immigration program were hopelessly labyrinthine. For example, one could only qualify to come here if they served a consecutive 12 months, but if that period started before the arbitrary marker of 2007, they were deemed ineligible, even though they would have been among the first to step up and assist Canadian soldiers.

The racist contempt the federal government has shown to its former Afghan contractors (who notably were forced to use segregated washrooms in a scene out of 1940s Alabama) is similar to the disrespect Ottawa regularly shows the veterans who have been lobbying so long on their behalf. These soldiers know first-hand the dangers faced by those left behind. It’s not a new risk at all, but rather one that has always existed, because the Taliban and other forces opposed to the occupation never went away. To call out Ottawa’s  failure to act much sooner as criminal negligence is an understatement.

Canadians with tender ears don’t want to hear this at a time when we want applause as the rescuers of those who were complicit in our dirty work. But it is part of a lengthy record that is limited in disclosure by those with the most to lose.

When the issue of Canadian transfer of detainees to torture was major headline news 15 years ago, former translator Ahmadshah Malgarai, a cultural and language advisor with secret clearance and commendations to his name, bravely told the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan in April, 2010: “There was no one in the Canadian military with a uniform who was involved in any way, at any level, with the detainee transfers who did not know what was going on and what the NDS [Afghanistan’s tortured-tainted National Directorate of Security] does to their detainees.”

 By extension, that would have to include the other translators, fixers, and liaisons. Critically, it would also include Minister Sajjan, his predecessors, and the military decision makers in Ottawa. In fact, it was this group of military brass and political operatives who intended that certain Afghans be tortured in order to gather “intelligence,” as University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Amir Attaran (who played a front-line role in exposing such crimes in the 2000s) pointed out in 2010. In the battle to secure unredacted documents related to the transfer of detainees to torture, Attaran told CBC, “If these documents were released [in full], what they will show is that Canada partnered deliberately with the torturers in Afghanistan for the interrogation of detainees. There would be a question of rendition and a question of war crimes on the part of certain Canadian officials. That's what's in these documents, and that's why the government is covering up as hard as it can."


Canada In Factual Cleansing Mode

As Canada closes its embassy in Kabul, there is no doubt a great deal of paper shredding going on. At home, the government is in full factual cleansing mode, using the dramatic evacuations as a starting point for completely rewriting the deadly and illegal Canadian occupation as a feel-good, well-intentioned, noble narrative about feminism and peaceful development that attempts to paper over the geopolitical violence that undergirded the original decision to invade.

Indeed, the mission itself was part of a larger, brutal purpose, in which the lives of the Afghan people were mere "collateral damage" in big power games, and the lives of the on-the-ground soldiers were equally expendable in the eyes of the generals and political leaders. It is those on-the-ground soldiers, and not the generals, who have had the dignity and honour to be paying out of pocket in an effort to speed the evacuations of their former contractors. Notably, such veterans, who have spent years advocating for the contractors’ transfer out of Afghanistan, have complained of being locked out of the process, despite having gathered folders filled with critical information needed to help identify and protect those most at risk.

Meanwhile as each planeload lands in Canada, Sajjan, among others, is no doubt up nights wondering who among them might be called as a witness in a war crimes inquiry. At the end of 2017, law professor and former MP Craig Scott submitted a war crimes brief to the International Criminal Court (ICC), in which there is ample documentation that Canadian political and military officials “may have aided, abetted or otherwise assisted the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Scott argued that an ICC inquiry would open up space for whistleblowers in the Canadian government, noting, “I am quite confident there are multiple persons across various departments in the Canadian federal civil service who know much but who are wary of coming forward until there is a credible investigative process that stands a chance of not being stymied in the way of every other process in Canada regarding detainees to date – and thus would be more likely to come forward to investigators within an ICC process they perceive as serious.”

Scott’s meticulous brief documents “off the books” detainee transfers as well as a perfidious pattern of deceit at the highest levels of the Canadian military. Notably, Scott, among the most well-versed on this subject, points out that “a lack of concern for the well-being of transferees need not have been – and likely usually was not – shared by the ground-level soldiers and military police who carried out the actual handovers. There is good reason to believe that many of those under orders from superiors to transfer did worry for the fate of transferees given rumours they had heard about treatment of prisoners in custody … even as they did not generally have access to the firm evidence that would prove such rumours (as would key command-level officials) and even as they may well have assumed that Canada had set up effective monitoring so that at least Canadian transferees were less likely to be abused.”

Scott confirms the comments of Amir Attaran from 2010, pointing out that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that certain Canadian officials ran a system of sending people to the real risk of torture despite knowing (or having the legally requisite basis to know) of the real risk of torture.”


Someone was in the Room

In 2007, the Globe and Mail famously reported on the fate of many detainees, such as  a 33-year-old farmer whose teeth were knocked out by Afghan interrogators. In a legal brief prepared by Amnesty International and the BC Civil Liberties Association, they noted that this farmer “claimed that Canadians visited him between beatings, heard his screams, and urged him to provide his Afghan captors with intelligence.” Given that a rural Afghan farmer was unlikely to be fluent in English or French, a Canadian-contracted interpreter must have been on-site to translate for the now bloodied detainee. The translator(s) – wherever they might be – could now be called as witnesses at a war crimes inquiry.

Meanwhile, in a move that may have had many quaking in their boots, in March 2020, the ICC unanimously authorized “the Prosecutor to commence an investigation into alleged crimes under the jurisdiction of the Court in relation to the situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” While there has yet to be further news on this front, the fact that the door remains open provides hope for some measure of the accountability so many Canadian officials hope to avoid.

Among those with the most to lose here would be Sajjan, whose 2015 appointment as war minister was at the time widely celebrated. Foreign Policy gushed, “Canada’s New Defense Minister Made His Own Gas Mask to Work With His Beard,” while the National Observer enthused: “You don't know how badass Trudeau’s Defence Minister really is.”

Sajjan was hailed as “some kind of next-level Spy vs Spy war hero” who had done three tours in Afghanistan and was praised by his superiors as “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in [the Afghan war] theater.”

            Despite all the celebratory news pieces, Sajjan’s appointment by Trudeau may have unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box that former PM Stephen Harper thought was sealed shut when he prorogued Parliament in 2009 to avoid stinging questions about Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees. Indeed, Sajjan’s overseas tours as a key Canadian asset and liaison with torture-tainted Afghan authorities dovetailed with an era when significant human rights concerns had been quietly raised by Canada’s foreign affairs representatives. This included a 2005 Canadian report that noted Afghanistan’s “military, intelligence and police forces have been involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects.”

In 2006, as Harper’s Conservatives took over direction of a war begun by the Liberals, Graeme Smith’s remarkable Globe and Mail investigative reporting – along with the courageous statements of Canadian whistleblower Richard Colvin, a diplomat in Afghanistan – brought to light a side of the Afghanistan occupation that most Canadians could not square with their traditional perceptions of the military. Terms like “war crimes” were openly used to describe Canadian transfers of detainees to the torture-stained Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), and the Harper government faced potential contempt of Parliament proceedings over its refusal to release thousands of documents related to the scandal.


Torture Was Standard Operating Procedure

            Colvin, who had served 17 months on the ground in Afghanistan, had testified in 2008 that Afghans transferred from Canadian Forces to the NDS commonly faced “beating, whipping with power cables, and the use of electricity. Also common was sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse—that is, rape. Torture might be limited to the first days or it could go on for months. According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure. 

            Colvin pointed out that many detainees had nothing to do with the Taliban: “many were just local people: farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time, young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up. In other words, we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.”

            While ongoing inquiries into the detainee scandal and the role of key Canadian decision makers were effectively shut down with the 2011 election of a Harper majority, the issue was raised again in the fall of 2015 a week before the Trudeau team officially took charge in Ottawa. But amidst what seemed the national lifting of a grim mood following a nasty election (in which Harper’s team had questioned the loyalty of niqab-wearing Muslims and proposed a Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline), little attention was paid to the Military Police Complaints Commission announcement that it would investigate a new case in which Canadian soldiers allegedly abused and “terrorized” Afghan detainees at their Kandahar base. That same week, researcher Omar Sabry and the Rideau Institute think tank released a new report calling for a “transparent and impartial judicial Commission of Inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials, including Ministers of the Crown, relating to Afghan detainees.”

            But who would decide whether to proceed with such an inquiry? It seemed that Sajjan, Canada’s hip new War Minister, might have to recuse himself from any role in considering the issue, given he could be compelled to answer some very difficult questions. As a high-level intelligence officer who appears to have taken an active role in combat operations, it seemed implausible that Sajjan was not familiar with the torture rampant throughout the Afghan detention system. Indeed, in 2006, Sajjan became the Canadian “intelligence liaison” to Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid.

According to Colvin’s Parliamentary testimony, Khalid “was known to us very early on, in May and June 2006, as an unusually bad actor on human rights issues. He was known to have had a dungeon in Ghazni, his previous province, where he used to detain people for money, and some of them disappeared. He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way. And then in Kandahar we found out that he had indeed set up a similar dungeon under his guest house. He acknowledged this. When asked, he had sort of justifications for it, but he was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.” (Khalid went on to become Afghanistan’s national intelligence chief).


Torturing a 90-Year-Old Man

Sajjan is also credited with the intelligence gathered for operations that led to the “kill or capture” of some 1,500 alleged Taliban members, a military claim that must be measured against the commonplace reference to any detainees as potential Taliban, as opposed to the broader categories of detainees translator Malgarai referenced in his testimony: “They went from 10 years old to 90 years old. With all due respect, I would ask retired General Hillier to tell me and explain to me how a 90-year-old man.... He was a 90-year-old man. He couldn't even walk without help. His hands were tied. His foot was shackled. He was blindfolded. Sometimes, when he couldn't walk fast enough, they pushed him. He fell many times, and he had injuries on his body. Could he please explain to me how this 90-year-old man, who couldn't even walk, who needed help when you tried to pick him up, could be a fighter?”

As Ottawa celebrated the new Trudeau government, serious questions were raised but unanswered. Would Sajjan discuss whether he undertook precautionary measures to ensure that he was not passing on to his superiors information gleaned from torture (especially given his liaison role with Governor Khalid and the widespread and well-known use of torture by the NDS in Afghanistan by the time of Major Sajjan's first tour of duty in 2006)? Alternatively, was such information caveated to the effect that its source may have been the fruits of torture?

            Equally compelling, in the small, circular world of intelligence operations, was information gleaned from NDS torture of detainees used in the Canadian round-up of individuals who, upon detention, were transferred to the hands of NDS torturers? Ultimately, given his likely awareness of torture in Afghanistan, did Sajjan refuse to take part in any operational activity that may have led to the transfer of detainees to torture?

            When the Harper government closed the case in 2011, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion  told the CBC “the likelihood is very high” that Afghan detainees were abused while in the custody, adding, “I don't think Canadians will accept that it's over.”

But Dion was silent when, in June 2016, Sajjan rejected public calls for an inquiry which, by this time, had received the support of everyone from former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark and leading Canadian law faculty to former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Amnesty International.

Ever since the 2015 election, Sajjan has seemed to run away from any association with Afghanistan. In 2017, he was accused of falsely downplaying his role in the war, as Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson sought to determine why he would not consent to an inquiry. In a response to Simon, Sajjan beggared belief by claiming, according to Dawson’s notes, that “[a]t no time was he involved in the transfer of Afghan detainees, nor did he have any knowledge relating to the matter.” He may have been the only one in Afghanistan not to know.

It was a remarkable walk back from the public record, in which his commanding office, Brigadier General David Fraser, described him as someone who “singlehandedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan.”

Ultimately, Dawson meekly concluded, based only on interviewing Sajjan and speaking with no one else, that there were no grounds for an investigation. On such a weak foundation Sajjan was then able to reject an inquiry.

Sajjan’s dismissive dispatch of the issue shocked many in the legal community who held out hope that campaign commitments to transparency and accountability would survive beyond election day. Four years and two elections later, Sajjan is on the campaign trail once again, trying to burnish his image as the wise saviour of a people in whose torture he may well be complicit. As we welcome Afghan refugees and work to save as many as possible from the likely retaliation they face if left in Afghanistan, the failure of Ottawa to take care of its former contractors for well over a decade may well warrant an inquiry in itself.

Meanwhile, the manner in which Canadian complicity in Afghan torture has corroded basic democratic principles and put thousands of lives at risk continues to reverberate here and around the globe. As those most responsible for these crimes continue to run away from them, they rely on exercising the levers of governmental secrecy to protect their paycheques, pensions, book deals, and the other perks that come with the sick celebration of militarism that was a mainstay of the Afghan occupation. by Matthew Behrens. An edited version of this story appears in




Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Soleiman Faqiri Case: End the Consistency of Cruelty in Canadian Jails

By Jozef Konyari


For over five years, the tragic death of Soleiman Faqiri in a Canadian prison has received widespread attention in press coverage, demonstrations, and teach-ins. The case has posed a challenge to our collective conscience over how we incarcerate people living with mental illness. With the recent commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day, Faqiri’s case remains on the minds of many as the latest in a centuries-long list of shame from Canadian prisons.


The consistency of cruelty

In 1993, the late Canadian poet, writer, and prison guard, Joel Michael Yates (1938-2019) wrote, “In my opinion there is not one well-managed correctional institution in North America. Not one (316).” Arguably, Yates’ insight continues to be true nearly 30 years after he published Line Screw: My Twelve Riotous Years Working Behind Bars in Some of Canada’s Toughest Jails.


In the mid 19th-century, cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment was routinely applied to prisoners in Canada’s notorious Kingston Penitentiary. As documented in Peter H. Hennessy’s 1999 book, Canada’s Big House: The Dark History of the Kingston Penitentiary, prisoners that transgressed behind the infamous Warden Henry Smith’s bars would be subjected to various coldblooded and ruthless punishments such as, “Meals of Bread and Water,” “The Box,” “The Cats,” and “Confinement to Dark Cell.” In the case of “The Box,” the Warden’s Report states, transgressors were placed into a coffin-shaped wooden box, forced to stand for nine hours straight, and often jabbed with a stick through an air hole. In “The Cats,” the surgeon on duty would oversee the execution of a brutal whipping that included anywhere between thirty-six and fifty lashes with lengthy strands of intertwined rawhide while other prisoners witnessed the pain, cuts, and seeping blood.


According to the Warden’s Report, 1847 was a particularly ruthless year with the following applications: “Meals of Bread and Water” (5,104), “The Box” (759), “The Cats” (58), “Confined to Dark Cell” (69). Two years later a commission of inquiry conducted by George Brown suggested that the “official” records were significantly less in comparison to the actual figures. No matter how many commissions of inquiry are launched, the undignified and harsh reality of life behind bars can never be truthfully captured.


At the intersection of childhood and mental illness, Warden Smith’s approach was anything but sympathetic. According to a testimony in the Brown Commission of 1849, which led to the removal of Warden Smith, children with “disordered” minds should have received better treatment; however, under Warden Smith’s evil watch children with “disordered” minds were subjected to “The Cats.” On one account, a boy between the ages of 12 and 14 years named, Beauche, was punished severely for making sounds, screaming, and claiming that there was something under his bed in the middle of the night. Upon the Warden’s arrival, the boy was referred to as a “scoundrel,” brought out of his cell practically naked and nearly silenced with a gag. In the end, the young boy was brutally flogged and, once covered in blood, he was taken back to his cell. According to witness testimony, the boy was eventually diagnosed as “insane” and transported to the Lower Canada Lunatic Asylum (as it was referred to).


Surely, much has changed since the sadistic rule of Warden Smith, right? Perhaps, but in some ways the situation has become much worse – through the formation of a duplicitous system that recognizes the notion of human rights but fails to protect them.


Since the days of Warden Smith’s atrocious rule, countries around the world and international bodies alike have cultivated numerous standards (e.g., The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners or Mandela Rules, and the United Nations’ Handbook on Prisoners with Special Needs) aimed at protecting those subjected to the inhumanity of prison life. Despite these developments, the consistency of cruelty persists. As a case in point, consider the appalling steps that led to the preventable death of Soleiman Faqiri in a Canadian jail.


Jail instead of diversion

According to the Schizophrenia Society of Canada’s 2005 paper, Diversion, Mental Health Courts and Schizophrenia, “Jails are not the place to treat individuals with a mental illness.” Unfortunately, this advice is routinely ignored. But is there an alternative? The answer is a resounding yes and it is called diversion. In the words of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada,


“Diversion offers the opportunity to treat individuals effectively while meeting overall societal objectives of protection and justice. For governments concerned about budgets, treatment in the community is a more cost-effective option to incarceration or inappropriate interaction with the judicial system.”


Unfortunately, far too many people with mental illness experience the latter – an appalling social phenomenon aptly described as the criminalization of the mentally ill.


On December 4, 2016, a 30-year-old man with no criminal record and diagnosed with schizophrenia was apprehended by police in Ajax, Ontario. The man’s name was Soleiman Faqiri. Soleiman was no stranger to police as he had been taken into custody 10 times under Ontario’s Mental Health Act and cared for by medical professionals. Unlike previous encounters with the police, December 4 was considerably different with respect to legal-medical decisions and outcomes. 


Upon Soleiman’s apprehension by police, he was taken to Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario (also referred to as the Lindsay superjail), which was the first wrong step in a series of moves that led to Soleiman’s death.


The Schizophrenia Society of Canada clearly states, “Effective diversion focuses on intervention at the earliest possible opportunity […]” and in situations where this cannot be achieved, there is a basic requirement for “Timely and high quality in-prison mental health services access to visiting psychiatrists and suitably trained mental health workers, nurses and guards; appropriate treatment environments such as hospital units within the prison and specialized forensic psychiatric facilities.”


Not only did police fail to implement an effective diversion strategy, Soleiman was taken to one of the worst prisons in Ontario. As a testament to Central East Correctional Centre’s dysfunction, the Community Advisory Board’s (CAB) Annual Report of 2015 describes mounting concerns linked to countless lockdowns, staff shortages, ineffective family visiting and support systems, increasing presence of ceramic knives, drugs and gangs, inmate-on-inmate assaults, and a lack of mental health training (many of these concerns resurfaced in the CAB 2016 Annual Report).


In addition to these conditions, the Ontario Ombudsman’s Annual Report of 2015-2016, which was released by Paul Dube, declared that the Lindsay superjail received 647 complaints ranging from assaults, lack of medical care, lockdowns, and other issues – that is, the highest number of complaints linked to a correctional facility next to Toronto South Detention (455), Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (394), Central North Correctional Centre (370), and Maplehurst Correctional Complex (267).


Segregation cell instead of a hospital bed

The next unspeakable step involved placing a vulnerable person like Soleiman in segregation (also referred to as solitary confinement). It is important to stress that for years leading up Soleiman’s experience the use of segregation was painstakingly scrutinized. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General’s 2017 review, Segregation In Ontario,


“Over the last several years, segregation in correctional institutions in Ontario has been a matter of growing concern. Viewed as the most restrictive form of custody available, segregation is known to have damaging effects on prisoners’ mental health and overall well-being. It is so damaging, in fact, that it has been reported as ‘cruel and unusual treatment’ by the United Nations, and can even amount to torture. Concerns have been raised over the harsh, harmful and deleterious effects of segregation, as well as its lack of external oversight and accountability.”


Two years before the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s review, Public Services Foundation of Canada released a 2015 report titled, Crisis in Correctional Services: Overcrowding and Inmates with Mental Health Problems in Provincial Correctional Facilities. The report drew specific attention to the influx of inmates suffering with mental health issues and the link between deficient mental health services and increasingly hazardous living and working conditions for inmates and prison guards. The report also points out that the system commonly detains people who need treatment, which goes against basic Canadian human rights and health standards articulated in the Canada Health Act (CHA). In terms of segregation, the report unequivocally states,


“There are numerous reports from across the country where segregation […] is used to isolate and contain inmates with mental health or addictions issues. But segregation is the worst possible response to the overwhelming majority of inmates with these problems” (45).


In addition, the report draws attention to the fact that,


“[…] involvement with a prison system where they [people with mental illness] often do not receive the treatment and support they need may result in more severe iterations of their illness. Behind bars, they are often targets of violence and abuse. Given the tension and multiple potential triggers posed by prison, these inmates can also present a threat to other inmates and workers in the system” (46).


The Public Services Foundation of Canada was clear with their assessment and warning that,


“We must stop using our police and jails as the default treatment option for people with mental illnesses. Our governments must act swiftly to address the serious deficiencies in the delivery of mental health services to ensure these vulnerable Canadians get the treatment and support they need on the outside, rather than being warehoused in correctional facilities” (46).


Unfortunately, our governments did not act quickly enough to prioritize these issues, which sends a clear message to Canadians and our global community: People suffering with mental illness in Canadian prisons system are undeserving of basic human rights and dignity. What type of a society would deprive its most vulnerable members of such basic rights and services?


As far back as 2012, a report conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) titled, Changing Directions Changing Lives, Mental Health Strategy for Canada, points out that Canada’s 2010 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) created an opportunity to articulate and put into practice all the legal, policy, and regulatory measures that would promote and protect the human rights of all persons with disabilities. As mentioned in the report,


“A key principle of both the CRPD and recovery-oriented mental health policy and legislation is to always employ the least intrusive and least restrictive interventions possible. Instances when people living with mental health problems and illnesses are placed in seclusion, physically restrained or restrained with medications should be examined to see if they represent a failure of the system” (43).   


Furthermore, the report states,


“People living with mental health problems and illnesses – whatever their age and however severe their mental health problem or illness – and their families should be able to count on timely access to the full range of options for mental health services, treatments and supports, just as they would expect if they were confronting heart disease or cancer” (58).


Given Soleiman’s identity, as a racialized person, devout Muslim and immigrant from Kabul, Afghanistan, the MHCC’s report is particularly insightful when it states, “People who are immigrants, refugees, members of ethno-cultural groups or who are likely to be racialized (that is, to have others make assumptions about them based on perceptions about race) face particular challenges that put their mental health at greater risk” (82).


Despite countless reviews and reports detailing the need to keep people with mental illness out of segregation and the necessity of providing timely mental health services, Soleiman was placed into segregation and denied access to a hospital bed – a step in the course of events that cannot be minimized.


A beating and death instead of care and treatment

On December 15, Soleiman was taking a shower and started to toss shampoo bottles and spray guards with water. After refusing to leave the shower area the guards attempted to physically remove him despite MHCC recommendations to “always employ the least intrusive and least restrictive interventions possible.” Another escalation point, in an already calamitous situation. 


In the process of removing Soleiman from the shower he was struck by one of the guards, pepper-sprayed twice directly in the face and eventually shoved back into his cell, which contained no security camera. It was here where the abuse and torment spiralled even further out of control. With a code blue alert, several more guards entered Soleiman’s cell. While some guards pinned his limbs to the ground other guards placed a spit hood over his head and pressured his body to the floor with leg irons. On top of the already excessive measures, which went on for an agonizing three hours, Soleiman was handcuffed behind the back in the prone position. After all the trauma, Soleiman was found to be unresponsive and pronounced dead in a cold bloody cell far away from those who truly cared for him.


According to a 2017 coroner’s report, Soleiman’s body was filled with over 50 cuts and bruises and contained many other clear signs of blunt impact trauma. Why was a person with a serious mental illness beaten to such a degree by the very people and institution responsible for his well being and safety? Soleiman was not only a vulnerable person that was brutally struck, pepper-sprayed, shoved, pinned down, hooded, cuffed, cut, bruised, and traumatized by a group of guards, he also lost his life in a legal-medical apparatus that astonishingly concluded the cause of death was “unascertained?” How could this be? In response to such bizarre assessment, Yusuf Zine, has attempted to piece together the chain of events in a 2021 six-part TVO podcast series titled, “Unascertained.”


Bureaucratic re-traumatization

As any family would do after such horrifying chain of events, the Faqiri family attempted to get some answers and accountability for what happened to their beloved Soli (as family and friends called him). So much more than his illness, Soli was a kind, loyal, intelligent, and warm soul with an outstanding sense of humour. He was also the precious son of Ghulam and Maryam and a brother to Yusuf, Sohrab, Ali and Pelatin and an uncle to a number of nieces and nephews. Even though Soli’s life changed dramatically after a traumatic car accident in university and a subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia, with the love and support from his family Soli continued to live a meaningful and productive life until the day of his undeniably preventable death inside a legal-medical system and culture that dishes out trauma as opposed to safety, protection, transparency, and accountability.


The initial trauma to the Faqiri family is clear: The premature death of their adored Soleiman. But to make matters worse the legal-medical system has made healing among the Faqiri’s an unattainable goal. At every level of analysis, the very systems responsible for so-called justice have failed the family, which forces them to relive the pain and suffering they yearn to start healing from.


As a case in point, the nearly one-year initial investigation, which was conducted by the Kawartha Lakes Police Service, stated that no charges would be laid against those involved with Soleiman’s death. While the initial investigation included almost 70 interviews with prison guards, inmates, and medical personnel, a known eyewitness named, John Thibeault, located in a cell across Soleiman’s, was never questioned. According to Thibeault’s account, which was captured by, The Fifth Estate, the guards were yelling at Soleiman to “stop resisting” even though there were no signs of life.


After the failure of the Kawartha Lakes Police Service investigation, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) launched a reinvestigation into Soleiman’s death. Similar to the Kawartha Lakes Police Service, the OPP declared that it was not pressing any charges against those involved in Soleiman’s final moments. Even though charges linked to group assaults are regularly dished out in Canada, the OPP claimed that no charges would be laid because they could not determine which guard executed the final strike to Soleiman’s body.


In terms of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ (MCSCS) response, MCSCS initiated a host of blame tactics, suspensions, and dismissals geared towards abolishing the claim of negligence. As opposed to a deeper analysis of institutional deficiencies linked to incident investigations, psychiatric assessments, and staff training in the areas of, use of force, negotiators, Institutional Crisis Intervention Teams (ICIT), pepper spray, spit hoods, and escort, MCSCS maintains that their employee training and processes are anything but flawed. Instead of receiving concrete answers that would assist in a long overdue psychological and emotional healing process, the Faqiri family remains caught in a blame game between MCSCS and terminated guards.


With minimal options on the table, the Faqiri family has turned their attention to a civil lawsuit that names MCSCS, the superintendent of the Lindsay superjail and several correctional staff as well as the Kawartha Lakes police in their failure to interview a key eyewitness. In the year 2021, the Faqiri family continues to seek full transparency and accountability in a legal-medical system saturated in bureaucratic re-traumatization in the form of inaccuracies, coverups, waiting games, and blame tactics.


The insanity of the system

While one might be tempted to think of Soleiman’s death as an institutional anomaly, the concrete reality suggests that solitary confinement, institutional brutality, and racial profiling are linked to a long list of – and in many cases forgotten – names: Ashley Smith, Edward Snowshoe, Abdurahman Hassan, Justin St. Amour, Moses Amik Beaver, Matthew Hines, Jordan Sheard, Cleve Geddes, Yousef Hussein, Adam Kenneth Reed, Adam Capay, and Clayton Cromwell. How many more preventable deaths under government care will we tolerate? How many more avoidable deaths will we, literally, pay for? How many more Faqiri’s will it take before we radically transform a severely broken system euphemistically classified as “corrections?”


According to the Legal Information Institute, negligence refers to,


“A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. The behaviour usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act.”


With this legal definition in mind, a few questions arise: Would a reasonable individual take a person diagnosed with schizophrenia to a jail, let alone a disreputable jail? Would a reasonable individual place a person diagnosed with schizophrenia into segregation? Would a reasonable individual participate in a gang-like beating of a person with a serious mental illness? We must also ask: Did the institution and employees of the jail fulfill their duty of care, or did they fail to act in ways that worked in the best interest of the human being in their custody? Cases like this scream insanity – that is, the insanity of the system. As a means of understanding this recklessness, it helps to examine a report published three years before Soleiman’s needless death.


In the Ombudsman Ontario report of 2013 titled, The Code: Investigation into the Ministry of Community and Correctional Services’ Responses to Allegations of Excessive Use of Force Against Inmates, Ontario’s watchdog, Andre Marin, maps out a system oozing in concealment, silence, denial, and sanitization of undesirable incidences. The report documents the ways in which some guards use lies, annihilate records, make deals with inmates, and strategically conceal facts as a means of protecting themselves and their co-workers. As mentioned in the report,


“[…] the “code of silence” is a persistent, recurring factor in cases of excessive use of force. It is essentially an unwritten social incentive for staff to conceal information that might have negative consequences for a co-worker. As in policing, in the world of correctional services, where personal safety and security often depends on the support of other officers, the pressure to keep silent and even lie to protect colleagues can be prevailing and pernicious” (64).


Marin’s report spells out the fact that the application of excessive force by some guards, is not only illegal and inexcusable, but also an enduring aspect of a dysfunctional prison culture that needs to be addressed with a sense of urgency. The report goes into disturbing detail concerning cases in which restrained and controlled inmates suffering from mental illness were subjected to head kicks and other harsh attacks that resulted in countless abrasions, contusions, and lacerations. 


Under the section, Dealing with Inmates with Mental Illness and Special Needs, the report states,


“The Ministry’s latest Use of Force policy specifically directs that when inmates exhibit signs of mental illness or are known to have mental health issues, correctional staff should consider getting health care staff involved, moving the inmate to a quieter environment and invoking de-escalation techniques. However, without specialized training relating to mental illness and other disabilities affecting behaviour, correctional staff can misinterpret inmate conduct and mismanage or precipitate conflict situations” (102).


The report also mentions that most of the abuse that inmates experience occurs in areas like a cell, which contain no video surveillance. As demonstrated in Marin’s report, the writing was on the wall and clear steps needed to be taken to prevent the ongoing victimization of people suffering with mental illness. Unfortunately, the issues of excessive force were not addressed in time, and as a result, Soleiman’s name would be added to the list of preventable jailhouse victims.


What adds to the already disturbing nature of Soleiman’s case is the fact that all the reports and papers that informed Canadian officials and the public about the possibility of more brutal outcomes were simply not implemented in such a way as to prevent Soleiman’s death. While the determination of Soleiman’s death and the accountability of guards is imperative, it is also essential to recognize that what lies beyond these narrow applications of law is a socio-historical legal-medical apparatus of cruelty and a dense track record of failing to implement evidence-based measures with the capacity to truly protect, support, and rehabilitate those with mental illness. This perpetual failure can be conceptualized as an overarching negligence of a dysfunctional system. A failure to see and understand this is yet another expression of denial. The question is: Can an effective evidence-based approach be implemented in our existing prison system? If not, perhaps it is time to disassemble the monstrous system that we constructed and rebuild from the ground up.


No body is immune

Mental illness can affect anyone. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), schizophrenia is a complicated biochemical brain disorder that affects a person’s capacity to differentiate between reality and false perceptions. People who live with this complex brain disorder may be seriously impacted by delusions, hallucinations, social withdrawal, and unclear thinking. Like other mental illnesses, there is no universal experience; but rather, a unique trajectory, one of which should never include an experience such as Soleiman Faqiri’s.


As a high school teacher and parent of two young children, I was deeply concerned about the prevalence rates linked to children, youth, and mental illness prior to the pandemic (roughly 1 in 5), let alone under pandemic conditions. During the first wave, an article written by Liam Casey titled, Kids Are Not All Right’: Mental Health Among Ontario Children Deteriorating Amid COVID-19, revealed that “70% of children experienced deterioration of mental health.” All this to say, when I first joined the Justice for Soli Movement in August 2020, I instinctively understood the short- and long-term consequences of not getting involved. Without some degree of political participation and sustained public pressure geared towards rapidly changing the existing prison system, there is nothing in place to guarantee that the type of brutality that occurred to Soleiman will not occur in the adult years of one of the children or youth that are currently growing up in our schools, families, and ultimately, society.


Like many Canadians, I had no idea about this chilling case until I stumbled across a Toronto Star article in the late summer of 2020 titled, Tragic, preposterous’: Family of Soleiman Faqiri reacts as OPP says it won’t charge jail guards in mentally ill Ontario man’s death. The article was terribly moving and put me into instant tears as I could not bring myself to comprehend what the Faqiri family was going through to achieve some form of justice in a clearly unjust system.


My immediate reaction was to contact Soleiman’s brother Yusuf Faqiri to see if there was anything I could do to support his family’s struggle. After a quick search online, I messaged Yusuf and he called me back almost immediately. Within the first five minutes of our phone call, I realized that I was talking to someone that was, on one hand, deeply shattered by the circumstances of his brother’s death, and on the other, filled with a unique love for humanity and an unshakable passion to drastically transform a dehumanizing prison system incapable of protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.


Till this day, I remain committed to the Justice for Soli Movement and believe, alongside countless other people and organizations such as, the McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, The Schizophrenia Society of Canada, Naseeha Mental Health, Muslim Medical Association of Canada, Across Boundaries, Elizabeth Fry Society, Bar None, East Coast Prison Justice Society, No One Is Illegal, B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, that people with mental illness like Beauche in the 19th-century or Faqiri in the 21st-century, deserve so much more than jails, flogs, handcuffs, spit hoods, beatings, and premature death. It is time to end the consistency of cruelty.


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