Customers file human rights complaints against police during Nyala Lounge meeting

More business owners, customers and human rights advocates are rallying behind the owner of a McCauley bar who has been complaining for months about what he says is unfair and unjustified police presence in his establishment.

Video footage documents inspections, including physical altercation between police and customer

Yosef Andebirhan, left, Aster Yehaish, centre, and Kelsey Fortier fill out human rights complaint forms at Nyala Lounge on Oct. 18. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Business owners, customers and human rights advocates are rallying behind the owner of a McCauley lounge who has been complaining for months about what he considers excessive police presence at his establishment.

Mulugeta Tesfay has accused Edmonton police of harassing his customers and conducting dozens of heavy-handed inspections at Nyala Lounge.

A video submitted to CBC News shows that on one occasion, at least five police officers were in the lounge's washroom as one officer grabbed a customer around the neck from behind and held him in a headlock. The customer, who denies the allegation, was later accused of possessing drugs. Court records show the man was never charged and does not have a criminal record.

During another recorded exchange, the officer tells Tesfay, "there's some dangerous cats here tonight."

"So why don't you guys arrest them?," asks Tesfay, who says he's unable to ban them.

"They're not arrestable right now," the officer replies.

Edmonton bar owner shares video showing police visits to his establishment.

5 years ago
Duration 1:30
Video provided by the owner of Edmonton bar Nyala shows instances when the police came to inspect the premises.

Police have denied Tesfay's allegations of harassment, saying frequent inspections have been due to cases of people who are public safety risks visiting the bar.

Over the past two years, Tesfay has racked up 34 tickets but documents show a dozen have been withdrawn or dismissed. He has paid two fines but two criminal tobacco-related offences were stayed. Tesfay has made not-guilty pleas for a charge of obstructing a police officer and for the rest of his tickets.

Earlier this month, police and city officials held a new conference to announce the closure of Nyala. They said the lounge was connected to a number of incidents of violence and public disorder, although no charges were laid. Tesfay denies the allegations.

A day later, the city informed Tesfay the decision had been overturned because authorities had failed to properly notify him that his business licence was under review.

Filing human rights complaints

Dozens of Tesfay's supporters — many of them customers and fellow African-Canadian business owners — met at the lounge on Thursday night to share stories and write complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Members of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a local advocacy group, encouraged at least six people to write complaints and left extra forms at the lounge for others to fill out.

"We want this community and this business to be treated like every other community and business in the city and we'll be monitoring that," said coalition member Mark Cherrington.

Tesfay filed a formal complaint with the Edmonton Police Service's professional standards branch more than a year ago but says there has been no response.

"To me that is very disturbing and disconcerting," Cherrington said.

He said he hopes a batch of human rights complaints compels authorities to respond.

One of the coalition's goals is to secure a private meeting with Edmonton's police chief.

'I just want them to stop'

At the meeting, customers and business owners questioned why so many police officers show up at their establishments.

"I just want this to stop," said Kelfala Moseray, a customer who described eight officers walking through Nyala Lounge on several occasions.

Rashid Hersi, who owned Afro Cafe on 118th Avenue from 2008 until 2015, said frequent police inspections drove customers away and led him to eventually close the business.

For the first two years, "the police was wonderful," he said, but in 2010, more and more officers started showing up for reasons he didn't understand. The 750-square-foot cafe, which did not serve alcohol, was often open into the early morning hours, drawing singers and crowds for cappuccinos and sandwiches. He said he never had a major problem with customers and never called for police assistance, but their presence only increased.

"Marching band! That's what we used to call them," he said.

Hersi said the inspections were intimidating because the cafe was small and many of his customers had histories of fearing police. They came to Canada from dangerous countries with dictatorships and police brutality.

"When you have six, seven, eight, 10 officers walk into a business, walking from booth to booth, seat to seat, looking at customers, checking everywhere, it's intimidation!" he said.

Tone of inspections has improved, Tesfay says

Last Friday night, the city's public safety compliance team returned to inspect Nyala. But Tesfay said only two city staff and one police officer showed up and their tone was friendly.

Tesfay still plans to sell his building and close Nyala, but said he's pleased that other business owners have found the courage to speak up about their own negative experiences with police.

"At least they can talk about it now," he said. "They feel like somebody is listening to them."

Edmonton police did not respond to requests for comment from CBC News.

With files from Andrea Huncar