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For five years, Soleiman Faqiri’s family has been doggedly pursuing an explanation for the mysterious circumstances around his brutal death after a mental-health crisis. And yet, they have hope – not because of Canada and its institutions, but because of Canadians

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Yusuf Faqiri, shown in 2019, still bitterly remembers the day in 2016 that police came to tell their family his brother Soleiman, 30, had died in prison.Tijana Martin/ The Globe and Mail • Family photos courtesy of Yusuf Faqiri

Yusuf Faqiri is Soleiman Faqiri’s eldest brother and the founder of the Justice for Soli movement.

Right up until the moment my family’s life changed forever, there was nothing remarkable about the night of Dec. 15, 2016.

My parents Maryam and Ghulam were downstairs with my sister Pelatin, chatting over tea in our comfortable home in Ajax, Ont. My brothers Sohrab and Roustam were out. I was upstairs in my room talking to a friend on the phone.

Suddenly, Pelatin barged in, her face ashen.

“Soleiman’s dead.”

I ran downstairs and found two local police officers seated at the dining room table with my father, speaking in hushed tones about my 30-year-old brother’s death. My father’s face showed little emotion – he had long ago become acquainted with heartache and loss, having lost his own father at a young age. Still, I could see the pain in his eyes.

I didn’t go to him then; my thoughts had already turned to my mother. I found her in our kitchen, where Soli would spend long hours perched on the island chatting with her while she cooked her delectable Afghan delicacies. And there she was now, in that same kitchen, alone and pacing back and forth as she talked to herself in Farsi. “Soleiman jan,” she said, using the Farsi word for “my dear.” “You weren’t supposed to leave before me. I gave you milk, I raised you but I couldn’t protect you. You were my teacher. I am sorry.”

She kept repeating these words to herself, her black robe and hijab fluttering as she paced, almost completely unaware of me or her surroundings. I tried to hold her, to take her into my arms and hug her – “Mama, Mama,” I soothed – but she looked right through me. It took me several minutes to calm her and get her to sit down.

My father called me to join him and the officers. They sympathetically tried to answer our frantic questions, but they only knew that Soli had died after guards entered his solitary-confinement cell in the jail he’d been in for 11 days.

I don’t remember too much of what happened after that. I do remember calling the coroner’s office that night, but not what I said, other than that we needed to get my brother’s body as soon as possible in order to bury him per Muslim custom. Everything else was a blur.

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Soleiman's parents, Ghulam and Maryam.

To understand how we got here, you have to understand that my brother Soli suffered from mental illness. After experiencing a mental-health episode on Dec. 4, 2016, he was taken to the Central East Correctional Centre, in Lindsay, Ont., on charges of assault and uttering threats – even though what he actually needed was medical attention. We had tried to visit four times over those 11 days, bringing Soli’s medications and records to desperately try to convince staff that he needed to be transferred to a mental-health institution, but we were denied access and turned away every time. Finally, on Dec. 12, we got word that Soli would soon be transferred to the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health, where he should have been all along.

Three days later, those officers arrived at our door to shatter our world.

After they departed, I sat with my parents, all of us stunned, in enormous grief and with an equally enormous absence of information. Then, my mother, the rock of our family and a survivor of immense pain even before Soli died, turned to me. She instructed me – quietly, but firmly – to find out what had happened to her son. When my mother makes a command, it is simply done – no questions asked. And so I promised her that I would.

This past August, five harrowing years after I made my vow, our family got the truth we sought. And while the terrible and brutal facts of how Soli died in that jail cell haunt us still, so too does the arduousness involved in getting those answers from a prison and justice system that operates away from scrutiny or accountability.

On the morning of Dec. 15, 2016, we woke up as a normal family by most standards: people trying to live our lives, with an inherent faith that our country and its institutions were trying to do right by us – a trust sparked and affirmed by how we were welcomed into Canadian society decades ago, as refugees from a war-torn place.

But by the time night fell, we were changed forever. Over the course of our five-year effort to fulfill my mother’s wishes, the place we’d come to love let us down so many times that we stopped believing in the systems, altogether – though we never stopped believing in our fellow Canadians, or in justice being done.

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A high-school-age Soleiman, left, with his father. Far from the strife of their former home, Afghanistan, Soleiman's parents hoped to raise their five children in suburban Canada with as much peace and prosperity as they could find.

One of the earliest memories I have from when I was a child is waking up one night to find myself in a new country.

It was the early 1990s, during the civil war that broke out after the Soviet Union’s invasion and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. I remember blearily seeing strangers escorting my mother and my siblings away from our homeland and toward a border, where we were told to wait for the right moment to cross into safety. We waited in the bushes, with Soli by my side, as we planned the final leg of our escape from a civil war that had ravaged our homeland. At any moment, we could have been apprehended by border agents and sent back into the conflict zone.

Growing up, I didn’t fully understand the profound impact that war had on my parents. But through the years, I’ve learned that this is where my family earned the streak of resilience on which we have relied.

I learned that family members were shot to death in front of loved ones in the capital city of Kabul and in a village in the northern part of Afghanistan. I learned that burying one’s own children was a part of life.

I learned that my father never came to terms with the war’s devastation, preferring instead to focus on the pre-Soviet 1970s, when he worked as a self-made and successful pharmacist. He didn’t like to think about how he lost his hard-won livelihood once the war set in, or how it remained taken away from him when Canada, the land we escaped to, declined to recognize his credentials.

I learned that my mother, meanwhile, came from humble roots, and that she lost several family members in the war. One of my mother’s cousins was kidnapped by soldiers right in front of her parents as a teenager; she was never seen or heard from again. And so, for my parents, Canada represented a place to raise their five kids in peace and prosperity. We lived a typical suburban life, though we didn’t have much; we went to school, studied hard, made friends and looked forward to futures that were bright and hopeful.

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Soleiman and Yusuf Faqiri, left and right, in an old family photo with their brother Roustam.

Soleiman seemed to have the brightest future of us all.

He was a star athlete in high school and a gifted student at the University of Waterloo, where he studied engineering in the mid-2000s. He was the dynamo of our family: He taught my mother how to read, taught our youngest brother how to drive, and translated for my parents in his immaculate English, Farsi and Arabic.

He was the golden boy of our family, representing all the dreams my parents dared to dream for their children. I may have been Soli’s older brother, but I was the one who looked up to him.

But in the spring of 2005, Soli got into a car accident on his way home from work. He suffered a serious head injury, forever altering the trajectory of his life. A couple of weeks after the crash, doctors diagnosed Soli with schizophrenia.

When my mother broke the news of his diagnosis to us, we were devastated, and desperately afraid of what lay ahead for him. But with the power of will that defines her, my mother set the family straight. “You will accept my son for who he is,” she told us firmly, and that was that.

There were many painful lessons to come, of course. I remember one heated argument with Soli, a couple of years after his diagnosis, where I insulted him by using the Farsi word for “psychotic.” As soon as I said it, he ran upstairs and came back down with a half-cup of his daily medications. “Do you think I chose this?” he asked, shaking them at me, before starting to cry. I cry, too, every time I relive the memory, to this day.

Despite the pain of this time, we became closer to one another, as well as to our religion. When I moved away to university, I lost touch with my Muslim faith, but when I graduated, I wanted to reconnect – and I learned to do so through Soli, who patiently taught me how to pray and guided me through the Arabic words to say, despite his diagnosis.

Little did I know then how important his gift of faith would be to me, after he died.

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Soleiman died at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., where he was taken after a mental-health episode in 2016.

It took until the middle of 2017 for the coroner to deliver the report on how he died, and when it arrived, it failed to provide any meaningful conclusions about what actually happened. In fact, it only prompted even more questions.

Soli’s body had been found with more than 50 signs of blunt force trauma, as well as bruises to his upper and lower extremities, including his neck. He was pepper-sprayed twice, the report found, and his face had been covered with a spit hood; his body had been held down with leg irons.

But while the presiding pathologist had detailed these marks on Soleiman’s body, she chose not to offer any analysis on the consequences of those injuries. The cause of death, then, was “unascertained.” That word would haunt us in the years to come, because by stopping short of trying to explain how Soli died, the report would stymie our pursuit of justice.

The Kawartha Lakes Police, which is responsible for investigating incidents at the Central East Correctional Centre, used this finding to suggest that the beating may have had nothing to do with his death – effectively claiming that he just happened to spontaneously expire at precisely the same time as he was being pepper-sprayed, handcuffed face-down and repeatedly beaten by prison guards. Those actions were against the policy of the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General, in particular the face-down restraint and the misuse of the spit hood, which can potentially cause asphyxiation. But the force closed the case anyway, without laying any charges.

That was all we’d know for two full years. But meanwhile, a man named John Thibeault, who had been in a cell across from Soli’s, was trying in vain to reach out to Kawartha Lakes Police to tell them that he saw everything.

In January, 2019, he went public. He told the CBC’s Fifth Estate that he saw guards viciously beat Soli, kicking his head up off the ground and hitting his head off the corner of the bunk bed while he was handcuffed. He claimed that he even saw a guard put a knee on Soli’s neck. “I’ve never seen nothing like it. And I’ve seen a lot of messed-up stuff in jail,” he said.

Mr. Thibeault’s testimony shook my mother. She couldn’t understand why anyone would have treated her son – much less any human being – that way. My father couldn’t sleep for days; he’d call me in the middle of the night, telling me he didn’t want to know anything more. One of my brothers has not even been able to speak about Mr. Thibeault’s testimony, to this day.

After Mr. Thibeault’s interview, the Ontario coroner’s office reopened the case, this time assigning it to the Ontario Provincial Police, which promised a transparent and thorough investigation. And even though our experiences with the Kawartha Lakes Police Service had been so disappointing — especially given that they had closed their file while knowing that Mr. Thibeault had expressed a desire to speak with them — we wanted to believe that the system would work. We wanted to take the OPP at their word. I tried to encourage my family to give them the benefit of the doubt — that we had to have faith that the authorities had both justice and the public good in mind. Why would we lose that core sense of trust in the kinds of institutions that had brought us to this safer and better life?

But then, there were delays interviewing Mr. Thibeault, and in the end, months later, Mr. Thibeault literally had to show up at a detachment before the OPP took his full statement. The Detective Inspector later told my lawyers that his team found Mr. Thibeault to be credible.

But even that wasn’t enough — and it seemed that the system was intent on frustrating our pursuit of justice, rather than supporting us. The final blow to the OPP’s investigation was delivered by the same justice system that failed Soli at the very start: the Detective Inspector told us he had received a confidential memorandum from Crown lawyers and that, as a result of this briefing note that my family and our lawyers were not allowed to see, he would be shutting the investigation down, again.

The most the Detective Inspector would say is that he could not lay charges because he could not determine which of the guards delivered the fatal blow – in other words, that the sheer number of people allegedly involved in the savage beating of my brother meant that no single individual could be held accountable for his death. It was an incredible claim -- one that my lawyers said was a laughable position with no basis in Canadian criminal law. When we pushed back, he then pivoted to the “unascertained” finding in the 2017 pathologist report. None of this made sense to us.

But still – the case was closed, again.

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In 2019, demonstrators marked the third anniversary of Soleiman's death with vigils in seven Canadian cities: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto (shown here at Yonge-Dundas Square), Peterborough and Ottawa.

The news left my family feeling heartbroken and defeated once more. Wave upon wave of pain crashed over us; we were drained, and wanted to stop. My father comforted us by telling us we had done our best, but that there wasn’t much more we could do.

But then my mother spoke up. “Keep going,” she said. “Keep going until you cannot stop. This is not over.”

I was reminded in that moment how her resilience came from the trauma of war in Afghanistan. Because she survived that, not even the death of her own son could shake her resolve to stand up for herself and for her family. I didn’t want to let my mother down – but I also thought about all the people who I could try to inspire with my resilience, in the same way that my mother did for me.

So we kept fighting. We shared Soli’s story at vigils and virtual events across the country, and as more and more people heard it, the chorus of medical professionals, mental-health advocates, politicians, and others questioning the “unascertained” finding grew louder and louder. Canadians showed up for my family, thanking us for sharing Soli’s story and lifting us up, in the process.

And in June, 2021, we caught a break. Ontario’s chief pathologist, Michael Pollanen, announced that he would review the original coroner’s report.

Two months later, he released his findings. Soleiman, Dr. Pollanen said, died as a direct result of the actions of the guards who beat and restrained him on Dec. 15, 2016. According to Dr. Pollanen, it was the prone-position restraint and the injuries to Soli’s body that caused him to become hypoxic or have a fatal heart arrhythmia. Either individually, or in combination, the actions of those in the cell caused him to die.

Once again, the chief coroner has turned the case back to the OPP for a third criminal investigation. While we wait for another investigation to run its course, one thing is for certain: There is no more doubt as to who caused the beating death of my late brother.

And another thing is certain: inspired by my mother, we will persevere.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve suffered personal losses. I’ve had to relive the pain of what happened to Soli, over and over again.

I’ve had to rely heavily on my faith to sustain me, praying with the words that Soli taught me – especially in my darkest moments, when I find myself thinking that there is a whole other justice system for law enforcement officials than there is for the rest of us. Whether there is true accountability will depend on whether the OPP does its job and lays charges, after this new report; I would love to say that I have confidence in them, but nothing they have said or done has earned that.

In the meantime, I visit Soli’s grave every week, standing alone beneath the shade of a large oak tree that grows just by where he is buried. Some of my family members cannot do this, and I understand why – it is wrenching, every time. And every time I’m there, I talk to him about our campaign and renew my commitment to keep fighting.

I tell him that I hope that we are making a difference, that I hope that we are building something that he would have been proud of. At the end of it all though, I’ve made a promise to my mother. It’s a promise I intend to keep.

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