Customers file human rights complaints against police during Nyala Lounge meeting

Customers file human rights complaints against police during Nyala Lounge meeting

Business owners, customers and human rights advocates are rallying behind the owner of a McCauley lounge who has been complaining for months about what he considers excessive police presence at his establishment.

Mulugeta Tesfay has accused Edmonton police of harassing his customers and conducting dozens of heavy-handed inspections at Nyala Lounge. A video submitted to CBC News shows that on one occasion, at least five police officers were in the lounge's washroom as one officer grabbed a customer around the neck from behind and held him in a headlock. The customer was later accused of possessing drugs but court records show the man was never charged and does not have a criminal record.

During another recorded exchange, the officer tells Tesfay, "there's some dangerous cats here tonight."

"So why don't you guys arrest them?," asks Tesfay, who says he's unable to ban them.

"They're not arrestable right now," the officer replies.

Police have denied Teslay's allegations, saying frequent inspections have been due to cases of people who are public safety risks visiting the bar.

Filing human rights complaints

Dozens of Tesfay's supporters — many of them customers and fellow African-Canadian business owners — met at the lounge on Thursday night to share stories and write complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Members of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, a local advocacy group, encouraged at least six people to write complaints and left extra forms at the lounge for others to fill out.

"We want this community and this business to be treated like every other community and business in the city and we'll be monitoring that," said coalition member Mark Cherrington.

Tesfay filed a formal complaint with the Edmonton Police Service's professional standards branch more than a year ago but says there has been no response.

"To me that is very disturbing and disconcerting," Cherrington said.

He said he hopes a batch of human rights complaints compels authorities to respond.

One of the coalition's goals is to secure a private meeting with Edmonton's police chief.

'I just want them to stop'

At the meeting, customers and business owners questioned why so many police officers show up at their establishments.

"I just want this to stop," said Kelfala Moseray, a customer who described eight officers walking through Nyala Lounge on several occasions.

Rashid Hersi, who owned Afro Cafe on 118th Avenue from 2008 until 2015, said frequent police inspections drove customers away and led him to eventually close the business.

For the first two years, "the police was wonderful," he said, but in 2010, more and more officers started showing up for reasons he didn't understand. The 750-square-foot Somali cafe, which did not serve alcohol, was often open into the early morning hours, drawing singers and crowds for cappuccinos and sandwiches. He said he never had a major problem with customers and never called for police assistance, but their presence only increased.

"Marching band! That's what we used to call them," he said.

Hersi said the inspections were intimidating because the cafe was small and many of his customers had histories of fearing police. They came to Canada from dangerous countries with dictatorships and police brutality.

"When you have six, seven, eight, 10 officers walk into a business, walking from booth to booth, seat to seat, looking at customers, checking everywhere, it's intimidation!" he said.

Tone of inspections has improved, Tesfay says

Last Friday night, the city's public safety compliance team returned to inspect Nyala. But Tesfay said only two city staff and one police officer showed up and their tone was friendly.

Tesfay still plans to sell his building and close Nyala, but said he's pleased that other business owners have found the courage to speak up about their own negative experiences with police.

"At least they can talk about it now," he said. "They feel like somebody is listening to them."