Justice for Anas?

Par Jessica Murphy le 30 octobre 2008

Bizarre circumstances surround the shooting death by police of Mohamed Anas Bennis on Dec. 1, 2005.

This summer, the family, who has been fighting for almost three years against government stonewalling, thought they would finally learn the facts about that day in Cote-des-Neiges.

Last June, Quebec's chief coroner, Louise Nolet, ordered an inquest into the shooting to be presided over by coroner Catherine Rudel-Tessier, which was supposed to begin on September 29, 2008.

But in August, the Montreal police brotherhood filed a legal motion against Rudel-Tessier and the Bennis family to prevent the inquest from taking place, alleging that all of the answers to the family's questions had already been made available.

The Bennis family disagrees.

Three years ago, Benis, 25 and a devout Muslim, was walking home from morning prayers at his mosque near his home.

Simultaneously, the Montreal police and the Surete du Quebec were involved in a joint operation in the neighbourhood targeting a network of alleged scam artists with possible ties to international terrorism. At the corner of Côte-des-Neiges Road and Kent Avenue, two police officers from Montreal's Station 25 were patrolling the security parameter set up for the operation.

That much is known.

But what happened next left Bennis dead, an officer injured, and a string of questions.

Police allege that Anas Benis attacked one of the officers with no provocation, stabbing him in the neck and the leg and causing Constable Yannick Bernier to fatally shoot Bennis twice in self-defense.

As with every police shooting in the province, the investigation was taken over by a separate police force - in this case, the Quebec City police.

The family waited 11 months for answers, but instead got a press release from the crown prosecutor announcing that no criminal charges would be laid.

The full report was never made public and the family has been asking since why Anas Benis, who was unknown to police, had no history of violence, and no known mental health problems, suddenly attack police?

Or simply, as Anas' father stated in 2005: "Anas left the Mosque at 6:30am, and was killed at 7:20am. But nobody has been able to tell me what happened in those fifty minutes. Everything else comes after this. So the truth remains to be seen."

Quebec's public security ministry refused to let the family see the final report, citing article 101 de la Loi sur la recherche des causes et des circonstances des décès, which allows the ministry to withhold a report in its entirety in the interests of protecting the officers of the peace involved.

So the Bennis family took the case to the police ethics commission who initially rejected their complaint in April but reopened the case this August to further investigate whether the use of a firearm, instead of a so-called intermediate weapons, was appropriate.

The community and a number of community organizations have rallied around the family. They say the case highlights the inherently flawed system for investigating the police in the province.

Montreal police have been involved in just over 40 deaths in 20 years. Since the start of 2005, 53 civilians have died in police operations across the province and another 29 people have been wounded. Police are also regularly killed in the line of duty, 12 in Montreal since 1985.

But those are tallies that say nothing about guilt or innocence - policing will inherently involve violence.

What Quebecers need is a system for investigating police shootings that they can trust.

"It's the same each time a police operation creates a tragedy like the one seen (this summer) in Montreal North," said Philippe Robert de Massy, a lawyer with Quebec's human rights league, referring to the shooting death by Montreal police of Fredy Villanueva.

"We have to find a new way of investigating that guarantees objectivity and transparency."

The Bennis family is demanding the immediate release of all reports, evidence and information to them and the public, a full, public, independent inquiry into Bennis' death, and ambitiously, an end to police brutality and impunity.

But now the Brotherhood is moving to block the coroner's public inquest.

("There's no reason to suspend the inquest," said coroner Rudel-Tessier.

"I think it's necessary, personally.")

The brotherhood recently filed a similar motion to prevent an inquest into the in-custody death of Michel Berniquez, who died from a heart attack after being restrained by police. The Quebec Superior Court supported the motion in June and veto'ed the inquiry.

The mandate of the police brotherhood is to protect their own. In this case, police union president Yves Francoeur said in a statement that the Const. Bernier, a victim of an unprovoked attack, had as much a right to compassion as the Bennis family, and enumerated the investigations and inquests already performed in the case as justification for blocking the inquest.

But concerns about the transparency and objectivity of government policies for investigating police shootings have been around for years and come from more then the media and various interest groups.

In 1996, a former SQ investigator, Gaétan Rivest, told the media that Quebec police forces close ranks and go to long lengths to keep their peer from ending up in court when they are  under investigation, adding that police brotherhoods were "omnipresent" in these files.

Rivest claimed to have been complicit in protecting the police officer involved in the death of Yvon Lafrance, who was shot by Montreal police in 1989. 

Further, in the late 1990s The Poitras Commission spent $20 million looking into wrongdoing within the SQ. The report took a detailed look at the inner workings of the force and describes the enormous difficulty encountered by three officers charged with investigating the bungled drug case that sparked the commisision. The report says they were confronted by an unwritten law of silence and police solidarity. 

A protest held last week by the Justice for Anas committee in front of the police union building near Laurier metro demonstrated how police rallied when threatened. They blocked off a two streets around the building, brought out 50 police, and re-routed buses to keep the roughly 10 protesters away from their headquarters.

"It's a sign of their hubris," noted protester Carl Olson.

The brotherhood's legal motion will make its way through the courts. Meanwhile, fallout from the Villanueva incident, Montreal's latest fatal police shooing, will continue to dog the force and the Bennis family will keep pressing for answers.

"We should be happy we have this family willing to fight for these changes," said de Massy.


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