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Canadian Diplomats Suing Government For $28 Million Over Mysterious Illness

Some Canadian diplomats who became mysteriously ill while posted to Cuba are suing the Canadian government. The $28 million lawsuit alleges the government failed to protect them, hid crucial information and downplayed the seriousness of the risks.
Desmond Boylan
Some Canadian diplomats who became mysteriously ill while posted to Cuba are suing the Canadian government. The $28 million lawsuit alleges the government failed to protect them, hid crucial information and downplayed the seriousness of the risks.

Several Canadian diplomats who became mysteriously ill while serving in Cuba are suing the government for allegedly ignoring or attempting to conceal information about their ailments and subsequently taking too long to remove them from the country.

In the lawsuit, the five diplomats and their families – 14 total, including several children – say the government knowingly exposed them to "extremely serious and debilitating attacks" that have resulted in brain injuries from what the suit refers to as Havana Syndrome. They are seeking $28 million — about $21 million U.S. – in damages.

The claim argues Canada badly mishandled the crisis when it became clear that American diplomats were not the only targets of the attacks in early 2017.

"Canada downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoarded and concealed critical health and safety information, and gave false, misleading and incomplete information to diplomatic staff," the lawsuit says. Apparently, the government went so far as to suggest that the physical ailments people were experiencing were psychosomatic, according to the documents.

Additionally, the lawsuit contends the government put a greater number of its citizens in harm's way by continuing to send new families to Havana after several people began exhibiting symptoms consistent with what U.S. personnel had suffered.

"When the U.S. was withdrawing its diplomats Canada knew there was a problem and we didn't pull our people out," John Phillips, a lawyer representing the group, told the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

While some affected families were moved out of Havana following initial reports of illness, it wasn't until April 2018, that the Canadian government stopped posting new families in Cuba. In contrast, the U.S. withdrew most non-essential personnel from the country in September 2017.

"What we are looking to be compensated for is the long-term damage that's been done to the diplomats and their families. It's brain injuries and it's long term and it has a significant effect," Phillips added.

According to the suit, all 14 of the defendants are suffering from Havana Syndrome presenting with symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injuries, including headaches, loss of memory, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. "Moreover, neurological assessments of victims' brains actually show damage consistent with that seen in cases of concussion," according to the lawsuit.

"A few times I stood up and my nose was streaming with blood," an unidentified diplomat told the CBC. "The delay has had a huge impact on us in terms of the stress, trying to bring out lives back to normal."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the lawsuit on Thursday saying the government has taken the situation in Cuba "very seriously."

"There is no question that the health impacts on diplomats in Cuba have been visible and real," Trudeau told reporters.

"We are continuing to work with local authorities and work with the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] to determine what is the source of these sounds or this issue that they are facing," he said.

As NPR's Scott Neuman reported, the mysterious attacks initially began against American diplomats in late 2016. At the time they were thought to have involved a 'sonic' weapon. However, investigators have begun to cast doubt on that theory.

In January 2018, the Associated Press reportedthat the FBI has failed to uncover any evidence that sound waves could have caused the damage.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland acknowledged the lawsuit on Thursday, telling reporters she has met with some of the diplomats and their families.

"It's a privilege to serve Canada around the world, but it's also really hard," Freeland said.

"I've met with some of the affected Canadian diplomats who had serving in Cuba and they told me about their situation. I'm really concerned about them and they have Canada's utmost sympathy and support. They were in Cuba representing us and representing our country, and their health and safety absolutely needs to be a priority."

In the lawsuit, the diplomats argue they not only were "prevented from considering the true risks of a Havana posting to their own health, but they were also denied the opportunity to protect their children, and must live with the knowledge that they may never fully recover."

They also accuse the government of having "actively interfered" with their ability to seek appropriate medical care by restricting the information they are permitted to share with health care professionals.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.