Supporters of a Quebec man who has been in legal limbo in Cuba since the death of a fellow Canadian tourist nearly 16 months ago are taking their case for his freedom to the Cuban embassy in Ottawa.
Toufik Benhamiche was prevented from leaving Cuba despite having a conviction on charges related to a fatal boating accident overturned this year by Cuba’s highest court. And now he faces fresh charges stemming from the incident, which occurred while he was on a tourist excursion in Cayo Coco in July 2017.
Kahina Bensaadi, Benhamiche’s wife, said dozens of supporters and friends will head to Ottawa Saturday to deliver a letter to Cuban officials urging them to let him come home.
Bensaadi said in an interview Friday that after going through the legal process once, her husband sees no end to his ordeal.
Meanwhile, the couple’s two young daughters are anxious to have him return. He has lost his engineering job in Quebec, and Bensaadi is working and taking care of the family.
“The message I want to send is that it’s enough: We don’t have confidence in the Cuban justice system anymore,” Bensaadi said.
“And it’s time for them to let my husband go.”
Benhamiche, of Mascouche, Que., had just taken the controls of a small boat when it veered off course and fatally struck Jennifer Ann Marie Innis, an Ontario mother of three.
A criminal negligence conviction, which had resulted in a four-year sentence, was overturned last April by Cuba’s supreme court. The court cited violations of the penal code by the prosecution and infractions committed by employees of the company that provided the boat. It ordered a more thorough investigation.
Benhamiche learned this month he is facing the prospect of a second trial, with prosecutors seeking a five-year sentence. As in the first case, the prosecutor declined to pursue charges against Cuban employees working for the boat excursion company, Marlin SA.
Benhamiche’s lawyer in Cuba also discovered that a Marlin employee who was originally accused has fled the country.
In a lengthy letter published Wednesday on Facebook, Benhamiche, 48, expressed his sympathies to Innis while laying out his Cuban legal woes and maintaining the death was an accident.
Benhamiche has argued he received little instruction on how to operate the craft and was assured it was easy to use and by no means dangerous. He has alleged he wasn’t briefed on safety or legal obligations.
“This excursion, which was to be a pleasurable experience, became in addition to the shock of the event itself, the worst nightmare that a family can live through,” Benhamiche wrote.
He added that while he isn’t currently detained, that could change at any time. He is prevented from leaving Cuba because officials won’t give him an exit visa. No new trial date has been set.
‘They don’t want to hear it’
In Canada, the Benhamiche family has filed a $340,000 lawsuit against Sunwing Vacations, the tour operator with which they had booked the vacation package. The travel operator has previously said it will contest the lawsuit.
The family also filed a Federal Court motion last summer seeking to have the Canadian government come to the aid of Benhamiche. Bensaadi said the federal government has become more involved recently, and Global Affairs Canada says they are working on his case.
“Canadian consular officials will continue to be in regular contact with local authorities in Cuba, as well as Cuban representatives in Canada,” Richard Walker, a Global Affairs spokesman, wrote in an email.
Benhamiche’s Montreal-based attorney, Julius Grey, called his client’s case unique. He said it appears the local prosecutor is most interested in protecting the local tour company — which is owned by the state.
“Yes, there was a decision favourable to us from the Cuban supreme court, and nothing has changed,” Grey said. “He (Benhamiche) goes from office to office, to the prosecutors, to internal affairs, and he can’t get an exit visa.”
Bensaadi said they’re hoping Saturday’s sit-in will get the attention of Cuban officials in Canada.
“We’ve followed the legal process, we followed the judiciary process, we followed and respected all of their rules and laws, but they don’t want to hear it,” Bensaadi said.
“They want him take the rap regardless.”