A lawsuit launched by the owner of a former shisha bar popular among Edmonton’s African-Canadian community accuses the city and police of conducting unwarranted inspections by large groups of armed officers.

In a statement of claim filed on July 8, Mulugeta Tesfay says he was unlawfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted by members of the police service’s hospitality policing unit in retaliation for filing a formal complaint about their conduct.

Tesfay also accuses authorities of knowingly making false public allegations about the safety of his former business, Nyala Lounge.

The allegations and inspections resulted in decreased customer attendance and loss of business before Nyala was closed in March, the lawsuit states. Tesfay is seeking at least $1.6-million in damages

“The purported regulatory inspections were conducted by large teams of armed police officers in a manner which was unreasonable, unnecessary and disproportionate to their stated purpose of confirming compliance,” the document states.

Justin Lallemand and acting Det. Colin Simpson spoke about the closure of Nyala Lounge at a news conference on Sept. 24, 2018.

The lawsuit names former police chief Rod Knecht, current chief Dale McFee and several members of the Public Safety Compliance Team (PSCT) including Justin Lallemand, acting Det. Colin Simpson and Const. Dexx Williams. Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis is also named in the claim.

Edmonton police, the city, Tesfay and his lawyer Tom Engel have all declined comment. The allegations have not been proven in court. 

The legal challenge is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle that saw authorities repeatedly try to shut down Nyala before being overruled by a city committee in February. Despite the decision, Nyala closed a month later. Authorities said their actions were based on concerns of public safety while Tesfay insisted he and his customers were the targets of police harassment and racial profiling.

According to the statement of claim, Simpson and two other officers unlawfully initiated criminal prosecution against Tesfay in retaliation for a formal complaint he made about their conduct. Tesfay was arrested the day after he filed the complaint.  

The lawsuit says police falsely arrested Tesfay in 2017 for allegedly selling untaxed tobacco shisha, rather than herbal shisha. The disputed product had been seized a week earlier but never tested. 

The charge was later stayed.

Const. Dexx Williams, who regularly inspected Nyala, is named as one of the officers in a lawsuit launched July 8, 2019, by the former owner of the Edmonton shisha establishment. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

‘Unlawful arrest’

On July 8, 2017, court documents say, Tesfay was unnecessarily handcuffed in front of customers with force applied that aggravated combat injuries he suffered during his service in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. 

Tesfay, who served 20 years in the military, was allegedly denied medication required for post-traumatic stress disorder when he was held overnight for a bail hearing.

The claim says that police “held release concerns that Tesfay may not attend future court dates on the basis that he had ‘roots in Africa’ and ‘financial means’ to leave the country, in circumstances where [the officer] knew Tesfay was a Canadian citizen, a member of the Canadian military and owned a business in the city of Edmonton.”

It adds, “[Police] acted with specific malicious intent in inflicting physical pain and suffering and severe mental suffering to Tesfay during the course of his unlawful arrest.”

Mulugeta Tesfay’s video of Edmonton police conducting an inspection at Nyala Lounge on July 14, 2018. 1:19

Tesfay also accuses police of making false representations to the chief licensing officer and to the media in a bid to shut down his establishment.

The claim says Williams falsely represented that several violation tickets had been issued on reasonable grounds, all resulting in convictions and fines.

“Simpson prepared a written submission for the [licensing officer] in support of the PSCT recommendation, which falsely attributed several violent incidents between 2015 and 2018 to Nyala,” the document alleges. “Lallemand falsely alleged that ’22 violent incidents’ occurred at Nyala between 2015 and 2018.”

Lallemand made those statements during a news conference announcing the cancellation of Nyala’s business licence, a decision that was quietly reversed the next day when city officials realized Tesfay had not been properly notified that his licence was under review.

The lawsuit alleges that similar frequent and intrusive inspections of hookah bars owned and attended by African-Canadians between 2015 and 2018 were part of an overall plan to deter the operation of African hookah bars in Edmonton.

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