Canadian sentenced to 10 years in Cuban prison, was set up: lawyer
Published Wednesday, August 28, 2019 4:42AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, August 28, 2019 12:19PM EDT
Benjamin Tomlin is shown in a family handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Caroline Simpson
MONTREAL -- A Canadian man sentenced to 10 years in a Cuban prison says he is innocent, and his lawyer says his client was likely set up following a night of partying in a seaside town outside the popular resort destination of Varadero.
Benjamin Tomlin, 46, an employee of the Canadian Development Investment Corp., was arrested in August 2018 and charged with having sex with a 15-year-old. The age of consent in Cuba is 16.
Tomlin's Canadian lawyer, Ricardo Alcolado Perez, said the legal proceedings were plagued with irregularities. None of the witnesses in the case -- including the minor with whom he is accused of having sexual relations -- identified Tomlin in court, Alcolado Perez said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Tomlin's sister, Caroline Simpson of Montreal, said her brother has been "abandoned" by Canada. She said Tomlin has not received adequate consular services because of staffing shortages due to the mysterious "Havana syndrome" that has sickened employees at the Canadian and United States embassies.
Simpson said Global Affairs Canada should issue a travel warning for citizens planning to go to Cuba.
"Canadians are unaware," she said in an interview. "They think Cuba is a safe place ... and with the embassy being under-staffed, if something goes wrong, you have no support and you are totally on your own."
She said she was told numerous times by Global Affairs Canada that it won't interfere with the Cuban justice system. "But there is no justice system there," she said of Cuba. "They don't even respect their own laws."
Tomlin's troubles began in February 2017, after he met a group of Cuban nationals and partied with them at a friend's house and later, at a nightclub in the town of Cardenas, about 30 kilometres south of Varadero. After the nightclub, the group allegedly went to a private home.
Tomlin left the country the next day, but a warrant was later issued for his arrest without the Canadian's knowledge, Alcolado Perez said. When Tomlin returned to Cuba in August 2018, he was promptly arrested and charged with having sexual relations with a minor.
What Tomlin didn't know, Alcolado Perez said, is that at least two of the women at the club that night in February 2017 were underage prostitutes who were being investigated by authorities. The two young women were detained by police after Tomlin left the country in 2017 and allegedly made declarations against him.
Tomlin remembers going to a home in Cardenas after the club and falling asleep -- only to wake up with his phone and money stolen, Alcolado Perez said. The Canadian maintains he never had sex with anyone that night.
Alcolado Perez was present at Tomlin's trial -- which lasted less than one day. He said the court dismissed the alleged victim's testimony because it was deemed vague and misleading. "She could not identify Ben," Alcolado Perez said.
"In my opinion, there wasn't enough evidence to convict him," the lawyer said. Alcolado Perez, who is originally from Cuba but practices law in Toronto, was retained by Tomlin's employer, the Crown corporation known as CDEV, to assist with legal proceedings. Tomlin was provided with a Cuban national as his lawyer during the trial.
"Benjamin was naive," Alcolado Perez said. "He ended up with a group of people he obviously didn't know. He thought he was in a friendly environment. And at the end of the day, he was a victim and they wanted to steal from him."
Alcolado Perez said the judge convicted Tomlin on the basis of the two minors' initial declarations to police in 2017. In March 2019, Tomlin was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Tomlin's sister says the prison conditions are terrible, and she fears for his safety.
Zoltan Ambrus, a vice-president at CDEV, said Tomlin is an honest man with integrity. Ambrus said he has spoken with Tomlin about 12 times from prison. The conversations are rarely longer than two minutes, he said.
"Sometimes (Tomlin) just breaks down and asks for my help," Ambrus said in an interview. "Other times he talks about the conditions in the prison, and they seem absolutely terrible."
Tomlin, Ambrus said, is a tough guy. "He used to do mixed martial arts and is in good shape .... For them to have broken him like this ... it's striking to see what it's done to him."
Tomlin's supporters are speaking out as Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland travels to Cuba Wednesday. She is scheduled to meet with her Cuban counterpart, Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla.
Freeland's spokesman wouldn't say if the minister planned on raising Tomlin's case with Cuban authorities. The spokesman forwarded questions by The Canadian Press to the Global Affairs Department.
Barbara Harvey, spokeswoman with Global Affairs Canada, said in response to questions about Tomlin that the federal government is "aware of a Canadian citizen imprisoned in Cuba." She said consular officials are providing assistance to the individual's family and to local authorities.
Harvey said Ottawa announced last January it was reducing the number of diplomatic staff posted to Havana "following unusual health symptoms reported by Canadian diplomats in Cuba." But consular services, she said, "have not been affected by this decision."
Montreal-based lawyer Julius Grey is currently defending another Canadian in Cuba, Toufik Benhamiche, who is facing four years in prison after he was involved in a boating accident that killed a fellow tourist in 2017.
Grey has said the trial, which took place last December, was a "joke." In an interview Tuesday, the lawyer said his client was convicted after a four-hour trial, when similar legal proceedings in Canada would have taken weeks.
He said Ottawa should be warning travellers before they visit countries with judicial systems that aren't as rigorous as Canada's. Grey also said Canada tends to respect the jurisdiction of other countries -- "to a fault."
"Canada is a non-interventionist country," Grey said. "We put a great deal on our relations with the other country and less on the rights of our citizens. We should be more active in warning our citizens and in standing up for them."
Alcolado Perez said Tomlin is appealing his conviction to Cuba's supreme tribunal and a decision is forthcoming.
The Cuban embassy in Ottawa did not return a request for comment.