Nova Scotia

Former Halifax cab driver tells sex assault trial he didn't undress passenger

Bassam Al-Rawi, a former Halifax taxi driver, resumed testifying Thursday about the night exactly four years ago when he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in his cab.

WARNING: This story contains graphic and disturbing content

Former taxi driver Bassam Al-Rawi arrives at provincial court in Halifax on Monday, April 15, 2019, as his trial on a charge of sexual assault continues. This is the second trial for Al-Rawi in connection with what is alleged to have happened in his cab on May 23, 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A former taxi driver accused of sexually assaulting a passenger in Halifax in 2015 says he knew she was upset and he denies flirting with or undressing her. ​​​​​​

Bassam Al-Rawi, 43, resumed testifying in Halifax provincial court Thursday about the night exactly four years ago that police arrested him on a quiet south-end street after finding the complainant mostly naked sprawled in the back of his cab.

During cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Carla Ball suggested Al-Rawi knew the woman he picked up downtown around 1 a.m. was vulnerable after taking note of her intoxicated state and inquiring about "boy drama."

"You chose a very personal and intimate area of conversation," Ball said.

When Ball asked if he was being flirtatious by calling the complainant beautiful and smart, Al-Rawi said, "No, of course not," adding that he could have applied the same compliment to the Crown "without courting her."

'I was simply trying to raise her spirits'

Al-Rawi testified he was trying to calm the complainant down so that she would give him directions. 

"I was simply trying to raise her spirits," he said through an Arabic translator.

The Crown reviewed photos taken of the Honda Civic taxi — including one of a condom in the console between the two front seats — and suggested Al-Rawi kept it there in case an opportunity presented itself during his shift.

A photo of the middle console of Al-Rawi's cab. He testified he kept the condom pictured here in his wallet for personal reasons and he doesn't know how it was removed. (CBC)

Al-Rawi said that wasn't that case and he testified the police may have taken the condom out of his wallet when they were looking for his licence.

Al-Rawi, who now lives in Germany, previously told the court his passenger was emotional about running into an ex and at one point kissed him on the cheek after he complimented her.

The accused has denied ever touching the complainant and said he didn't believe she ever lost consciousness.

Publication ban

The complainant, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, told the court in January when the trial started she had been drinking downtown and didn't remember the 11-minute cab ride or the hours leading up to it.

On Thursday, Ball challenged Al-Rawi's version of events, positing he told the court the complainant got out of the cab to pee in order to account for why a five-minute drive from Granville Street to Atlantic Street took twice as long.

A photograph of the front seat of Al-Rawi's cab introduced as a court exhibit. He testified the complainant's jacket and purse remained in the front seat after she climbed into the back. (CBC)

She also suggested Al-Rawi pulled off the complainant's pants and underwear, undid her bra and had his head positioned between her legs when police arrived.

He denied all this, telling the court he believed his passenger removed her own pants after climbing from the front to the back seat of his cab.

"Out of respect, I would not look at a young lady who was naked. It was very difficult to guess what [the complainant] would do and this is the foundation of the problem," he said.

Police interview

Al-Rawi also told the court he was reluctant to share some information during his initial eight-hour police interview, which he said was conducted when he had been awake for more than 24 hours straight.

Defence lawyer Ian Hutchison read excerpts of the transcript and asked his client what he meant when he told a police officer, "Just keep in mind that we're both humans and this is a girl and I'm a guy."

"I felt at that point that I was Arabic and I was being persecuted and he was investigating me based on my background, based on my accent, I'm a taxi driver and I have dark skin," Al-Rawi told the court.

"I was completely aware that he would use [information] against me and this is what happened."

The defence called no further witnesses. Lawyers will give final submissions next week.

The CBC's Elizabeth McMillan live blogged from court.

This is the second time Al-Rawi has been on trial in relation to the 2015 charge. Initially, he was acquitted and the case ignited criticism after the original trial judge's comment that "clearly, a drunk can consent."

Nova Scotia Court of Appeal judges ordered a retrial in 2018 after finding Judge Gregory Lenehan made errors in law, including ignoring an ample amount of circumstantial evidence around the complainant's level of intoxication and her ability to consent.

A photo of Al-Rawi's taxi cab was included as an exhibit in court. The Crown questioned Al-Rawi about why his seat was tilted back. (CBC)

During the first trial Al-Rawi did not testify, but he began giving evidence in his defence during the retrial in April.

Earlier in the retrial, a police officer said she found the complainant sprawled in the back seat of an idling cab unconscious and mostly naked around 1 a.m. on May 23, 2015. Const. Monia Thibault said Al-Rawi's pants were unbuttoned and he was positioned between the woman's legs.

A DNA expert also testified that he found the woman's DNA on Al-Rawi's lips.