A former immigration detainee, jailed for almost five years, two of them in solitary, while border officials fought in court to have him deported, is suing Ottawa for failing to heed doctors’ warnings of his mental illness and provide him with proper care.
Prosper Niyonzima, whose family was slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, became a permanent resident of Canada in 1995 before criminal activity landed him in and out of jail, and resulted in the revocation of his immigrant status.
In 2012, he was placed in detention to await deportation.
In a statement of claim filed Friday with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Niyonzima said that period of incarceration, which included more than 760 days in solitary, led him to experience a mental breakdown and rendered him catatonic for more than two years. He claims that when authorities finally transferred him to a secure treatment facility under a court order, he was forced to undergo painful electroconvulsive therapy, which was unsuccessful in addressing his condition.
“The plaintiff suffered pre-existing mental-health issues from childhood trauma following the Rwandan genocide in which his parents and three siblings were massacred. The plaintiff’s mental health issues were known to the defendant,” alleges Niyonzima’s $50-million lawsuit.
“Instead of ensuring enhanced medical treatment was provided, the defendant placed the plaintiff in solitary confinement …. The plaintiff was denied, among other things, proper clothing, proper medical attention, proper food, proper hygiene and given insufficient yard time.
“The plaintiff was given approximately three showers in a full year.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court, and the respondent, the Attorney General of Canada, has 20 days to file an intent to defend.
Niyonzima, 36, an ethnic Tutsi born in Burundi, lost his parents and siblings at age 11 when they were murdered in Rwanda. He fled to Canada in 1995 and was adopted by his aunt who successfully sought asylum here. Both became Canadian permanent residents that same year.
As a young man, Niyonzima was convicted of a series of crimes, including break-and-enter, theft and drug-related offences. After serving jail time, the Canada Border Services Agency ordered his deportation in 2005.
Eventually, he was given a five-year reprieve from deportation out of “humanitarian and compassionate concerns” that he would be returning to a country where he had no relatives and couldn’t even speak the language.
He met a woman and together they had a baby in 2009. However, Niyonzima returned to crime and was convicted of theft. Upon his release from jail in 2010, he sought help and was treated by psychiatrists, who diagnosed him with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the massacre of his family, he says in his lawsuit.
However, Niyonzima was stripped of his permanent resident status due to the new conviction and once again faced deportation from Canada. On Jan., 13, 2012, Canada Border Services Agency detained him for fear he would vanish as he waited for his deportation to Burundi.
While being held, Niyonzima was scheduled for removal on three occasions but all three attempts were stayed by the federal court, which acknowledged he had made progress subsequent to the treatment of “the mental health problems underlying his criminality.”
In July 2013, while incarcerated at Toronto West Detention Centre, Niyonzima’s daughter was adopted out to another family. Around that time, Niyonzima became catatonic and was placed on suicide watch in segregation, according to the lawsuit. A month later, he was transferred to Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay.
The lawsuit claims officials refused to transfer Niyonzima to a facility in Toronto where it would be easier for him to obtain a designated representative and access mental health professionals for assessment and treatment.
“The continued refusals resulted in an inordinate delay in obtaining proper psychiatric treatment resulting in further deterioration of Prosper’s health in solidarity confinement,” says the lawsuit.
In January 2015, Canada Border Services Agency was ordered by the Federal Court to pay for a psychiatric assessment. Niyonzima was diagnosed with catatonia and transferred to the St. Lawrence Valley secure treatment unit in Brockville, where he claims he was given the electroconvulsive treatment.
He was released on Oct. 27, 2016 under the supervision of the Toronto bail program and monitored by a team of physicians and psychiatrists. Since then, he has been issued a three-year temporary resident permit, after which he can apply to restore his permanent residence if he doesn’t have any more run-ins with the law.
Immigration detainees are entitled to a detention review every 30 days before an immigration tribunal to decide if they should be released. Niyonzima’s lawyer, Subodh Bharati said his client underwent close to 60 reviews but was never released.
“At each detention review, adjudicators of the Immigration division accepted the Canada Border Services Agency’s representations (that he was a flight risk) and continually upheld Prosper’s detention, despite the fact that he had obtained three stays of removals from the Federal Court and despite the fact that he was now catatonic and in dire need of medical treatment,” Bharati noted.
“Both the CBSA and adjudicators of the Immigration Division had a duty of care to the plaintiff to conduct their investigations in a competent manner.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung