Immigrant’s Custody Death Sparks Probe

Immigrant's custody death sparks probe
As coroner investigates how Roma refugee died, widow and family say they've been denied details

By Nicholas Keung
The Toronto Star (Canada), December 22, 2009–immigrant-s-custody-death-sparks-probe

A Toronto woman is seeking answers after her husband, a Roma refugee, died in Toronto West Detention Centre on Dec. 8, two days after he was supposed to have been deported.

The Ontario coroner is investigating the death of Jan Samko, 31, who was scheduled to be sent back to the Czech Republic on Dec. 6. Samko had been arrested on an immigration warrant and was detained at a Rexdale Blvd. immigration holding centre earlier this month.

At 1:30 a.m. Dec. 9, a Toronto police officer told Samko's widow, Nadezda Peterova, and the couple's 9-year-old daughter, Sabina, the factory worker had been found dead in his cell at the detention centre.

Andrei Balog, Samko's brother-in-law, said a consulate official initially told them 'there was some kind of incident. Mr. Samko got upset and he had to be subdued at the airport,' but the office later suggested the man had a 'heart problem.'

Paul St. Clair, executive director of Toronto's Roma Community Centre, said he was given the same information by Czech consulate staff during his own inquiries.

'We were not informed that he didn't leave Canada,' Balog said through a translator. 'We have not been told of anything … We don't know what he died of. We don't believe his heart failed on its own.' Other than a limp stemming from an injury Samko suffered in an attack by neo-Nazis as a youngster, Balog said his brother-in-law was healthy.

The provincial Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, responsible for detainees in its facilities, confirmed Samko died at Toronto West on the evening of Dec. 8.

Ministry spokesman Stuart McGetrick declined to comment further, but said if the death is ruled 'not of natural cause,' an inquest will be held. The Canada Border Services Agency declined to comment, but said foreigners awaiting deportation are kept in detention at a provincial jail if deemed a danger to the public.

In Greater Toronto, on average, about 100 detainees are in immigration holding facilities for failure to appear for deportation; another 200 are in provincial jails. The agency would only say Samko was 'removal ready' and initially taken to an immigration holding centre. Jiri Slais, the Czech Republic's vice-consul in Toronto, also declined to comment but said the office is offering support to the family.

Peterova and her husband of 13 years arrived in Canada separately last year and filed refugee claims. In October, Samko withdrew his claim in order to visit his ailing mother in the Czech Republic. He changed his mind, but a request to reopen the claim was rejected.

Peterova said she last saw her husband in early December, when police and immigration enforcement officers arrested him.

At the Czech consulate's advice, the widow has withdrawn her outstanding refugee claim so she can escort Samko's body home an arrangement the family's lawyer Marie Saintil finds troubling. The family should not be advised by the same government that has failed to protect them back home, she said; also, they should remain here until the coroner's investigation is complete. Peterova and her daughter are due to leave Canada voluntarily on Dec. 29.