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Edmonton shisha bar shut down by city to protect 'public and patron safety'

City officials have shut down a north Edmonton shisha bar called the Nyala Lounge, saying the move came in the interest of public and patron safety. But the owner says he should have been given a chance to defend himself in court.

But owner says he is victim of ongoing police harassment and discrimination

The city's Public Safety Compliance Team recommended cancelling the business licence of Nyala Lounge. (Nyala Lounge)

City officials have shut down an Edmonton shisha bar called the Nyala Lounge, saying the move came in the interest of "public and patron safety."

The move was recommended by the city's Public Safety Compliance Team, which held a news conference Monday afternoon.

"The public safety compliance team is satisfied with this decision and strongly believes that Nyala was not being operated in a manner that could ensure public patron and community safety," said Justin Lallemand, support manager for the PSCT.

But the owner, a decorated war veteran who accuses police of harassment and discrimination, questioned how his business could be shut down based on allegations not been proven in court.

Mulugeta Tesfay, who has paid two fines but successfully fought a third of the ticket and two tobacco-related criminal charges, said he learned his business licence was cancelled in a letter dated Sept. 19.

In the letter, the city cited four factors for the closure of the lounge, just northeast of the downtown, based on a submission by the PSCT, a city policing hospitality unit.

Among the reasons, police allege staff and owners hid a gun someone tried to fire during an altercation at Nyala last January. Tesfay has pleaded not guilty to obstructing a peace officer in that incident, saying it took place during a community event while the lounge was closed.

Violent incidents occurring within proximity

Lallemand said 22 other alleged incidents of violence and public disorder disturbances, such as gunshots or physical assaults, have occurred inside Nyala or in the neighbourhood, though none led to charges.

"We have lots of evidence linking many of the violent incidents to within Nyala lounge or patrons leaving Nyala lounge and causing a disturbance outside the venue," he said, adding the only other business operating in the time frame was blocks away.

"So it's safe to say that the violent incidents are occurring within the proximity of Nyala lounge," said Lallemand.
Justin Lallemand with the Public Safety Compliance Team says Nyala was not operating in a manner that could ensure patron and community safety. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Police say the lounge has violated conditions imposed on its licence 82 times during 25 inspections in a seven-week period, including infractions surrounding "patron counts, patron scanning and incident logging" that resulted in 12 bylaw tickets.

The letter from the city noted that notice of cancellation sent on Aug. 17 provided Tesfay with a chance to respond by Aug. 31. At the time, Tesfay said he was in Ethiopia to see his critically ill father, who died during the visit.

"I didn't even get a chance to respond," said Tesfay. "So when I read it I was shocked."

A single complaint has destroyed my life.- Mulugeta   Tesfay

When he initially opened the business, Tesfay said he worked with police for the safety of his customers and community. But police refused to enter into mediation to address some of his growing concerns, he said.

Eventually he formally complained that some officers harassed his customers, who are mostly of African descent. After that, he said, inspections ramped up, and so did the tickets.

"They started coming every weekend, issuing tickets pretty much every Friday, Saturday," Tesfay said, sitting next to a stack of freshly issued pink tickets at Nyala. "This is pretty much revenge, retaliation — we're going to give you tickets until you close down.

"A single complaint has destroyed my life."

Nine tickets withdrawn, dismissed

Of the 30 bylaw tickets issued to Tesfay over the past two years, nine were withdrawn or dismissed after he challenged them in court, documents show.

He paid two fines, including one for overcrowding, which the city notified media of in a press release. Tesfay plans to fight the remaining 19 infractions at about a dozen trials scheduled over the next several months.

Two tobacco-related criminal charges that prompted police to arrest and detain Tesfay overnight in July 2017 were stayed at a preliminary hearing in July. Tesfay has pleaded not guilty to two additional charges, including one related to the January gun incident.
Mulugeta Tesfay says he is a victim of a campaign by police to shut down his business. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Neighbour Brad Currie said blaming Nyala for violence in the neighbourhood is "bullcrap." He blamed another venue that has since closed, and said Tesfay is a great neighbour who renovated his front patio, always puts flowers out and invites neighbours to free barbecues on Canada Day. He questioned why Tesfay moved into the community a decade ago but is only having trouble with police now.

"He's the nicest guy in the world and he's done everything they ask," Currie said. "And then once he does that, they change the rules and tell him he has to do something else. You don't think there should be prejudice in this age but it seems that's the way he's been treated."

Tesfay is now trying to sell the building where Nyala is located at 108th Avenue and 98th Street, and said he is struggling to pay next month's mortgage. He said he's close to bankruptcy after spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Police deny the tickets were motivated by retaliation. Sgt. Colin Simpson said initially the checks were weekly, not daily, to work with the venue. "When the relationship deteriorated for whatever reason and we began to find more incidents of non-compliance, then obviously the police visits increased,' said Simpson.

Tesfay and police first spoke to CBC about his case after he appeared before the city's community standards and licence appeal committee on June 14.

Initially, Tesfay set out to challenge the conditions imposed on his business licence but acquiesced after police argued Nyala should be shut down for public safety reasons.

Among the conditions Tesfay took issue with, he was required to scan customer identification. But Tesfay said police were randomly searching the scanner, which amounted to an electronic form of carding, or street checks, that violated the privacy rights of his customers. 

He also said he could no longer make a profit under conditions that shrunk customer capacity from 120 to 44 and required at least three security staff in place after 9 p.m.

But at Monday's news conference, Simpson said a search of the scanner after the fact allows police to ticket patrons who have been banned and take further steps to prevent them from returning, "which ultimately will protect the venue."

'Flight risk' due to 'roots in Africa'

In a disclosure document submitted after the June hearing, lawyer Praveen Alwis raised concerns about his client's arrest on July 8, 2017, the day after Tesfay filed a formal complaint with the professional standards branch of Edmonton police.

In front of his customers, Tesfay was arrested and handcuffed and held overnight for a bail hearing.

The disclosure document stated that police held him on "primary ground" concerns, meaning they thought Tesfay was a "flight risk" and may not show up in court because of his "roots in Africa."

But Alwis questioned why Tesfay, a Canadian citizen and veteran who won the Sacrifice Medal after serving Canada for 20 years, and who has a wife, children and a business in Edmonton and has no criminal record, would be considered a flight risk.

"This attitude of ethnically charged suspicion has been implicitly demonstrated in the manner in which police have interacted with Mr. Tesfay, his business as well as other members of Edmonton's African community," wrote Alwis.

"The timing and nature of his arrest and detention on July 8 reflects a retaliatory and malicious intent on behalf of police," he said.

In an email to CBC, police said "the EPS vehemently disagrees" with that assessment.

"There are many factors in determining whether an individual is at flight risk, some of which include family and community ties, as well as financial resources," the email said.

An inspection on July 14 was also singled out by the PSCT as another reason to shut down Nyala.

At the news conference, Lallemand said Tesfay told the deejay to turn down the music and announced inspectors were shutting down the venue.

"This led the crowd of attendees in the venue to become very hostile toward regulatory members, some having to be held back by friends and security staff, which in turn led to the termination of the inspection for the compliance team's safety," said Lallemand.

But Tesfay denied he incited the crowd. 

He provided a cellphone recording of the incident to CBC. It shows a small crowd of customers questioning officers about their frequent inspections. One customer asked: "Is this justice or racist?"
Mulugeta Tesfay's video of customers questioning Edmonton police during an inspection at Nyala Lounge on July 14, 2018. 1:25

Another customer asked why police ID her every weekend. "So we can document that we saw it," an officer responded.

Outside, Tesfay apologized to inspectors but said his customers were "fed up" by the way they were treated by some police.

"They've been abusing, they've been harassing, the last three years," he said.

Tesfay has 14 days to appeal the cancellation of his business licence.

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar is based in Edmonton. She reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, policing and radicalization. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca