Thursday, July 26, 2007

Police Killing of Mohamed Anas Bennis: Authorities Must Come Clean

Two opinion pieces from today's Montreal Gazette calling for full disclosure in the case of Mohamed Anas Bennis, killed my Montreal police on December 1st 2005 - one of them by Anas' twin sister Khadija:

Police Shooting of Mohamed Anas Bennis: Authorities Must come Clean
Slain Montrealer’s family is seeking answers in the shooting death, but police and justice officials aren’t talking. The family wants to know the facts
In the past month, two Montrealers have been shot by Montreal police, one fatally. In British Columbia, disturbing evidence of a potential police cover-up in the death of a man in RCMP custody was also reported. I don't read these news stories as a casual observer: I have had a loved one killed in a Montreal police intervention.

My brother Mohamed Anas Bennis was killed by Montreal police 19 months ago. Since then, my family and I have struggled to obtain basic answers about why my brother was killed, and in what circumstances. We are asking the same questions anyone would ask in the same situation.

I am now reaching out to all Montrealers of good conscience to ask that they help in making sure the truth will prevail.

On Dec. 1, 2005, in the early morning, my 25-year-old brother was returning from prayers at a neighbourhood mosque in Côte des Neiges, just minutes from where we lived. He was shot and killed because, inexplicably, he is alleged to have had a kitchen knife and threatened a police officer involved in a separate incident completely unrelated to my brother.

I knew my brother well – he was my twin – and the actions ascribed to him make no sense. My brother was a generous and gentle person, with everything to live for. He was engaged to be married, and had recently started a business. It was completely out of character that suddenly, one morning, my brother would attack a police officer, or anyone, with a knife after his morning prayers just steps from his house.

I love my brother, of course, and I won’t love him any less if the acts ascribed to him are proven to be true.

Nineteen months after my brother’s death, my family and I are asking only that the truth of how my brother was killed be revealed through testimony and evidence in a full, independent and transparent inquiry.

From the little information that we have, there are some disturbing facts. According to the autopsy, the bullets that killed my brother entered his body downward, indicating that he was not in a threatening position. The kitchen knife that my brother allegedly possessed has never been produced. The injuries allegedly sustained by a police officer have never been proven. There is even a security video of the incident that the police refuse to divulge.

There are many other basic unanswered questions, such as confirmation about which police officer actually shot and killed my dear brother.

Since December 2005, my family and I put our trust in the procedures use by the police and government, particularly the Quebec Ministry of Public Security under Jacques Dupuis. But those procedures have proven to be completely inadequate, if not insulting.

Our family cannot even have access to the report produced by the investigating police or the crown attorney’s report concerning this matter. We are not even allowed to have a partial report. Despite our letters, Dupuis has remained silent.

After a police shooting resulting in death, the Ministry of Public Security’s policies allow for all reports and evidence to remain secret. This heavy-handed approach prevents even journalists from investigating the facts.

Ironically, if my brother had survived and was charged with a crime, he would at the very minimum have the right to know the evidence against him and to defend himself. My brother’s life, and voice, were taken away. But as a family, we are his voice, and to defend his memory we will continue to demand basic answers.

Since the day Anas was killed, I feel my family has been treated with disrespect. And for every day that goes by without basic answers being provided, that disrespect increases.

Despite our efforts for almost two years, Dupuis and his department have not provided any basic answers to my family.

In January 2006, on one of the coldest days of the year, several thousand protesters demonstrated to demand the truth concerning Anas’s death. Throughout 2006, we were hoping for answers, but by the first anniversary of Anas’s death, we were still in the dark.

The Justice for Anas Coalition was formed in January 2007, and has organized public meetings, formed delegations and written letters, all without a substantive reply from the minister.

Just last week, physicians from the Côte des Neiges neighbourhood called upon Dupuis to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of my brother. In their letter, they have not excluded the possibility that racial profiling might have played a role in the police shooting of my brother, an identifiable and practising Muslim.

Now, I am reaching out to Gazette readers for your support. To break the almost twoyears of silence, your pressure and support is needed.

I encourage you to consult to find out how you can support this case, and make sure justice, not secrecy, is served.

And by Henry Aubin:

It’s wrong to have police investigating police shootings

The adjacent article by Khadija Bennis is a moving appeal to end the secrecy over the circumstances under which her twin brother, Mohamed Anas Bennis, was killed by a Montreal police officer’s bullets in 2005. She is doing a public service by refusing to let the case blow over, as have so many similar ones over the years. Systemic silence over police-related deaths has no place in a modern democracy.

In the case of her brother, authorities won’t say why an officer had to shoot this pedestrian on a Côte des Neiges street. He had no criminal record and no discernible reason to be aggressive toward police. To be sure, police say the young man struck an officer twice with a knife on the neck and leg, but authorities say nothing more. What would have prompted his alleged attack? Who knows?

Such secrecy, sanctioned by provincial law, has three problems. First, as Khadija Bennis’s article all too poignantly shows, it is callously insensitive to the survivors of the deceased.

Second, it allows officialdom to exonerate the shooter without showing any reasons. Such silence can only weaken public confidence in the police.

And, finally, the secrecy makes no sense objectively. If Mohamed Anas Bennis had not died, prosecutors could have charged him with a crime. In court, the police then would have had to state their version of events, and Bennis could have had the opportunity to give his side. Everything would have been out in the open.

Think about the possible ramifications of this two-track policy – that is, the need for police to go public with their version of the facts if someone lives, but the licence police have to conceal the facts if that person dies. If you’re a cop and you wound someone without cause, you just might figure you have an incentive to finish the job. Killing the guy would keep the story from getting out and ruining your career.

Police will say such a scenario is appallingly cynical, but it’s precisely the sort of suspicion this policy of secrecy invites.

Indeed, such a scenario would help explain an otherwise puzzling trend in police shootings: The propensity of police to pump multiple bullets into people when a single bullet might do the job – that is, stop whatever threat the person might pose.

Could Bennis have been such a case? The coroner says two bullets struck his torso, hitting a lung, the spleen, the stomach, a kidney and the heart. But coroner Rafael Ayllon’s skimpy, twopage report doesn’t say which bullet did what damage. Nor does it say which bullet struck first. So you can’t tell if two shots were “necessary.”

A pathologist’s sketch is more insightful. It shows that the two bullets’ trajectories were downward through the torso, which suggests that Bennis was not standing erect. That does not make him seem too threatening.

Granted, it’s possible that – whether crouching, kneeling or prone – he was still dangerous. But the secrecy blanketing the case allows no such conclusion.

Note, too, that we haven’t seen Bennis’s knife. Nor have we seen photos of the officer’s injuries.

Quebec law requires an outside police force to probe cases in which people die or are seriously injured at the hands of police, but that is hardly reassuring. Police culture worships solidarity. In the Bennis case, the Quebec City police investigated and found nothing to warrant a criminal charge against the officer. (It is only when an officer is charged that the circumstances are made public.)

Ontario’s system is imperfect but better. Its civilian-led Special Investigations Unit has probed such cases since 1990. All of its 54 part- and full-time investigators are civilians, half of them former police officers. But even that watchdog needs watching: Responding to complaints that the unit had a pro-cop bias, Ontario’s ombudsman is now examining its record. Excellent.

All police-review systems are fallible. What you need are checks and balances. And Quebec has a glaring lack of them.

A final note: After I wrote about the Bennis case last year, a constable at the local police station sent a private response. She said the officer involved had been more substantially wounded than had been made public and subsequently suffered from nightmares and flashbacks.

Please understand: My criticism is not of the individual officer, whose conduct is impossible to evaluate. It is with the system that makes evaluation impossible.

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