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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Silence, omissions and lack of responsibility

January 15, 2009

A look at three tragedies that highlight problems in Canada’s judicial system
By Francesco Veronesi, Tandem News/Corriere Canadese

Claudio Castagnetta, Robert Dziekanski, Fredy Villanueva. Three tragic cases related by an uneasy commonality: the presumed responsibilities - which are officially rejected - of Canadian police authorities. These three cases have profoundly shocked our nation’s public opinion and aroused indignation, protest, anger, disillusionment, a sense of powerlessness, and a desire for justice.

But in the disheartening scenario highlighted by the three incidents that have caused deep wounds that have yet to heal what emerges are grey areas and questions that warrant answers.

Requests for the truth on behalf of the victims’ families has been met by a deafening silence from the authorities. The promise of shedding light on the events has fallen into the abyss. This grim process has produced nothing but contradictory conclusions, and shaky, questionable judgments.

Claudio Castagnetta

Claudio Castagnetta, a 32-year-old Italian resident in Quebec, was arrested in Quebec City on September 18, 2007. Barefoot and clearly in a state of confusion, the young man was arrested by police. During the arrest he was hit by five taser gun blasts – the final one lasting 21 seconds.

After a night in jail, Castagnetta asked to be taken to hospital. The response was to put him back in jail where he died a day later. Initially, Quebec authorities suggested that the deceased succumbed to “self-inflicted wounds.”

This was categorically disproved by results of the autopsy, which established that the cause of death was due to edema probably caused by acute amphetamine intoxication.

Crown Attorney Stephane Godri began an investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding the death of the Italian Canadian. On August 22, 2008, he presented a report completely exonerating the prison guards and police who arrested Castagnetta.
But last Nov. 2 there was a sensational development. Quebec’s head coroner Jean Brochu made public a 14-page document that questions Godri’s work. Brochu explicitly said there was clear evidence of fault: There were blows and negligence, which clearly contradicts what the attorney had previously established.

There was enough material to turn the political-justice world upside down. But nothing was done. Requests by Italian ambassador Gabriele Sardo and Liberal MP Joe Volpe for a public inquest fell on deaf ears. The Minister of Public Safety Jacques Dupuis decided to not intervene.

Fredy Villanueva

Even playing with dice can get you killed. Fredy Villanueva’s family now knows this full well, after the 18-year-old was killed by two police gunshots in Montreal last August. According to investigators, the youth was playing dice with his brother and some friends in one of the city’s public parks. Two police officers approached him and asked for identification, since playing dice in public is prohibited by a municipal by-law. The youth objected, put up resistance, and a violent scuffle broke out during which one of the officers drew his gun and opened fire. Bullets grazed two of the youth, but Villanueva was killed by two rounds of gun fire.

There was a spontaneous demonstration the next day, and all hell broke loose resulting in police charges, an infuriated crowd, cars set ablaze, and smashed windows. The urban guerrilla warfare lasted several hours – evidence of the people’s anger, in a neighbourhood made up mostly of immigrants. There were several injuries and arrests were made.

As in the Castagnetta case, an investigation was launched. This past December, the officer who opened fire and killed Villanueva was completely exonerated. Protesting re-ignited, with several associations asking for the heads of the Montreal mayor and the police department chief. Throwing water on the flames was Public Safety Minister Dupuis, who decided to open a public inquiry slated to get underway Feb. 16.

Robert Dziekanski

Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish citizen, came to Canada to visit his mother who has been living in our country since 1999. After a 21-hour voyage, he arrived at Vancouver airport on October 13, 2007, at 3:21 p.m.

Amid the general indifference – Dziekanski did not speak English – he awaited his turn for routine customs checks. Shortly after midnight, on Oct. 15 – 30 hours after his departure from Poland – a Canadian Border Services Agency guard completed his inspection of Dziekanski’s documents, which were all in order.

The by now faint Polish man was taken to another room to wait further. Shortly after 1 a.m., he broke into an outburst, threw a computer to the floor and tried to break a window. Police warned him, while another traveler began video recording on his cell phone. At about 1:25 a.m. four police officers arrived and began tasering him. Then the man fell to the floor, and an officer placed his knee on the man’s neck for about 45 seconds. Dziekanski lost consciousness, an ambulance arrived, but it was too late. Dziekanski died from cardiac arrest.

Due to pressure from the Polish government and from international indignation unleashed by the images viewed throughout the world, the British Columbia government decided to launch a public inquest to shed light on the incident. This pas Dec.12, the Criminal Justice Branch presented the finding of the investigation. Basically, the officers who apprehended Dziekanski were completely exonerated.

The report said that Dziekanski’s death “was caused by sudden death occurring after the arrest.” This is a bizarre concept that explains nothing. The autopsy, on the other hand, confirms only the cardiac arrest without questioning the cause. An aside: One of the four officers implicated in the death of Dziekanski was subsequently suspended while he faces unrelated charges of causing a death while driving intoxicated.

Double Standards

The inquest after the death of Fredy Vellanueva fully absolved the officers implicated in the incident. Notwithstanding, Minister Dupuis decided to hold a public inquiry “to reassure the citizens of the well-founded reasons behind the decisions taken by the Crown attorney.” Uncontestable. But why was the same treatment not afforded to the Claudio Castagnetta case?

“What was done by Minister Dupuis on the Villanueva case,” states the victim’s father Corrado Castagnetta to Corriere Canadese/Tandem, “is in direct contrast to what was done for my son. The launch of a public inquiry,” he adds, “would have allowed the truth to be known, officially exposing the inefficiency of the Quebec justice and public safety system.”

The use of Taser guns

Taser guns do not kill. This is the claim of Taser International - the multinational manufacturer of the controversial stun gun commonly used in recent years - in answer to those who consider its use illegal. However, with statistics in hand, the case history of deaths in North American “correlated” – and to be careful and cautious, we’re not using the word “caused” – to the use of Tasers is full of hundreds of such incidents contained in police reports.

What role did the Taser gun play in the deaths of Dziekanski and Castagnetta? In the case of the Dziekanski, the Criminal Justice Branch in B.C. attempts to justify - without succeeding – use of the Taser.

“According to the forensic pathologist,” the document reads, “the Taser gun did not directly cause cardiac arrest.” Ok, fine. Except that exactly five sentences later, the attorney tells us that along with the other co-causes of Dziekanski’s death – effects of alcohol withdrawal, cardiac insufficiency, respiratory difficulties, anxiety, dehydration, and so on – there is also the use of same Taser gun, responsible for “aggravating” the stress the man underwent during arrest.
To come full circle, all that’s left is for experts to tell us that a couple of Taser blasts are actually good for our health.

What’s missing in Castagnetta’s case compared to Dziekanski’s is the mass international indignation prompted by the crude images seen throughout the world. Even so, according to the coroner’s report, during his arrest, Castagnetta suffered the same treatment as Dziekanski: five Taser blasts, the last one for 21 unending seconds. According to the coroner, the Taser did not play any role in the death of Castagnetta.

“Dupuis turned to an expert to find out if the Taser used by the police can be considered safe, ” says Corrado Castagnetta. “But this should have been initiated by the Minister of Health. As well, the stun gun manufacturer confirms that the blast has a maximum duration of five seconds, so that the police officer using (or abusing) the gun would have had to activate it four times consecutively. And what if the gun used on Claudio’s body was defective? Why does the pathologist rule out that the use of the Taser caused my son’s death? Based on what evidence? Obviously, I’m still waiting for definitive answers.”

The File? What File?

Does a father not have the right to know the circumstances surrounding the death of a son? Corrado Castagnetta had continually to requested to see the file on his son’s death. This request had repeatedly crashed against a wall erected by the francophone province until finally last Dec. 24 when Minister Dupuis consigned the related documents to Castagnetta’s lawyer.

Search for Justice

With two cases (Dziekanski and Castagnetta) for all intents and purposes already archived, and one more awaiting the results of a public inquiry, it’s anyone’s guess if the officer who opened fire and killed Villanueva will be found responsible for the death. Three persons lost their lives and no one will be forced to answer in a court of justice. No one will pay the consequences. With the passing of time, even the echoes of public indignation are receding, and the quest for the truth will become a private battle by the families of the victims.

Silence again appears to be the most effective tool for the authorities. But it would be in the best interests of the governments of Quebec and B.C. to shed light on these three cases. And this is not due to any unlikely desire of reactionary vengeance or a lynch-mob mentality against public authority – who can make mistakes just like any of us – but because a serious and transparent examination of what actually did take place would restore the credibility that has been seriously compromised in recent months.

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