Toronto

Family of Soleiman Faqiri files $14M lawsuit over 'excessive force' they say killed him

More than two years after Soleiman Faqiri was found lifeless on the floor of an Ontario jail cell, the family of the 30-year-old man, who suffered from mental illness, files a lawsuit against the province over the “excessive use of force” they believe killed him.

Development comes after The Fifth Estate unveiled eyewitness account of 'brutal' encounter

Soleiman Faqiri was born on New Year's Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1986 and came to Canada in 1993. According to his family, he was a straight-A student, captain of his high school rugby team and had a close and loving relationship with his four siblings and parents. (Submitted by Yusuf Faqiri)

More than two years after Soleiman Faqiri was found lifeless on the floor of an Ontario jail cell, the family of the 30-year-old man, who had mental illness, has filed a lawsuit against the province over the "excessive force" they believe ultimately killed him.

The approximately $14.3-million suit, filed at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Monday, takes specific aim at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the superintendent of the Central East Correctional Centre and seven individual correctional staff members.

Among the claims: a breach of Faqiri's charter rights, battery that amounted to "intentional" physical harm, negligence, abuse of public office, false imprisonment for his placement in segregation with a mental illness, a breach of duty of care and inflicting psychiatric damage.

"Since my brother was killed, my family has been suffering," Faqiri's older brother, Yusuf, said in a statement. "The Central East Correctional Centre should have protected Soleiman but they failed him and us."

The development comes just over a week after an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate revealed a trove of new details about Faqiri's death at the jail in Kawartha Lakes, Ont., on Dec. 15, 2016, following what police have described as an altercation with guards.

To date, no one has been charged in the Faqiri case — his cause of death until now deemed "unascertained." An investigation by the Kawartha Lakes Police Service concluded in October 2017 there were no grounds for criminal charges.

Schizophrenic episode

Faqiri was born in Kabul in 1986, coming to Canada in 1993. According to his family, he was a straight-A student, captain of his high school rugby team and had a close and loving relationship with his four siblings and parents. But after a car accident during his first year at the University of Waterloo, Faqiri was diagnosed with schizophrenia, unable to continue his education.

On Dec. 4, 2016, Faqiri was arrested in Ajax, Ont., by Durham Regional Police after allegedly stabbing his neighbour with an "edged weapon." It wasn't his first run-in with the law — in the years following his diagnosis, Faqiri struggled to adhere to his medication and had been apprehended approximately 10 times before under the province's Mental Health Act.

This time though, instead of a hospital, he was taken to a jail cell. Eleven days later, he was dead.

The 25-page statement of claim paints a painful picture of the family's wait for answers.

Faqiri, they say, was undergoing a schizophrenic episode during the incident that led to his arrest. Durham police have, to date, refused to comment on the case.

There is no footage of what took place inside the cell. These blood smears were among the hundreds of photos of the scene taken by investigators following Faqiri’s death and obtained by The Fifth Estate. (Kawartha Lakes Police Service)

According to the statement of claim, jail staff were made aware of Faqiri's condition. Regardless, repeated attempts by family to visit him were denied. Meanwhile, his condition appeared to deteriorate and on Dec. 12, Faqiri was ordered to undergo a medical assessment by the Ontario Shores mental health facility.

He never made it.

Pepper-sprayed, restrained

On Dec. 15, Faqiri was transferred to the jail's maximum segregation unit. He was taken first to the showers. Guards would later tell police he was spraying them with water and throwing shampoo bottles.

From there, things quickly unraveled.

During his transfer from the shower to his new cell, something triggered Faqiri, the statement of claim states. 

In the ensuing minutes, Faqiri was pepper-sprayed "directly in his face," the statement says. Moments later, he was taken into the cell, which was out of the range of security cameras. He was dead within minutes.

For nearly two years, John Thibeault says he kept silent — fearful not only of the repercussions of speaking out while he was still behind bars but also that he might not be believed. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Much of the lawsuit hinges on the observations of an eyewitness. 

As part of its investigation, The Fifth Estate obtained more than 1,500 pages of documents never before seen by the public. Among the witnesses listed was John Thibeault — an inmate whose cell was across the hall from where Faqiri would end up dead.

At first, Thibeault told investigators he hadn't witnessed anything. He later told The Fifth Estate he was too afraid to speak out given he still had time to serve.

Eyewitness never interviewed

After his release, Thibeault told The Fifth Estate he attempted to contact police to tell them what he saw. He was never interviewed.

"The plaintiffs understand that the information that eluded the [Kawartha police] was, in fact, the evidence of an eyewitness to Soleiman's death whom police neglected to interview despite being aware of him," the family's claim reads.

All told, police interviewed 67 people connected with the case, including correctional staff and inmates. 

The Faqiri family in happier times. Soleiman, second from right, is pictured with family members, including from left: a cousin of the family, mother Maryam Faqiri, brother Sohrab Faqiri, brother Ali Faqiri, sister Paletin Faqiri, father Ghulam Faqiri and brother Yusuf Faqiri. (Submitted by Yusuf Faqiri)

But a police report obtained by The Fifth Estate reported the "inmates provided little information as to the events as they occurred."

At some point during the altercation, a spit hood was placed over his head as guards "repeatedly hit, kicked, punched and stomped on Soleiman," who struggled to breathe because of the pepper spray, the statement of claim alleges.

In the process, one of the guards pressed his knee on the back of Soleiman's neck, it goes on. Thibeault told The Fifth Estate he saw that firsthand, with the guard yelling at Faqiri to "stop resisting."

"He wasn't moving at all," Thibeault said in an interview.

'Blow or pressure' to neck

The police notes obtained by The Fifth Estate make reference to a "blow or pressure on [Faqiri's] neck," but that detail didn't appear in the coroner's report, which never arrived at a conclusive cause of death. Still, it said, the possibility that asphyxiation played a role could not be ruled out.

As part of The Fifth Estate's investigation, leading forensic pathologist Dr. John Butt voluntarily reviewed the documents along with Thibeault's account.

Butt found Thibeault's account lined up with specific injuries found on Faqiri's body during his autopsy, including deep hemorrhaging of the strap muscles in his neck. His conclusion: The injuries suggested Faqiri's neck sustained some sort of pressure.

Then, in November 2018, came welcome news.

Ontario's chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer revealed his office had received new evidence that "required further investigation within a criminal justice perspective." What that evidence is, Huyer wouldn't say, but he did confirm the investigation has been reopened and is now being handled by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Fifteen guards were suspended following Faqiri's death, though the length of those suspensions and whether they were paid remains unknown.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the guards, has turned down requests to comment, saying its policy is not to speak on matters before the courts. Ontario's correctional ministry refused comment for the same reason. 

Attempts to reach the guards directly involved in Faqiri's death have also been unsuccessful.

For the family, says lawyer Nader Hasan, "this is about truth and accountability."

"This legal action seeks to uncover the truth about what happened to Soleiman, why it happened, and to make sure it won't happen to anyone ever again."

About the Author

Shanifa Nasser

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shanifa Nasser is an investigative journalist interested in national security and stories with a heartbeat. Before coming to CBC News, she was a Munk Fellow in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto. She also holds a Master's degree in Islamic Studies. shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca