Canadian detained in Cuba following boating death allowed to return home

MASCOUCHE, Que. — A Quebecer who spent more than two years in legal limbo in Cuba following the death of a fellow Canadian tourist returned home last week after being liberated by Cuba's highest court.

Toufik Benhamiche returned to Canada last weekend a free man after the Cuban Supreme Court granted him an exceptional authorization to leave the country, annulling a sentence by a provincial court rendered in Ciego de Avila.

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"Effectively, the nightmare is finally over. I returned to Quebec on Saturday, and I'm happy to be back with my family, who I missed very much," Benhamiche said Friday at the offices of his local MP, Bloc Quebecois member Luc Theriault.

"It was a great relief. I thought this day would never come."

Benhamiche, who is from Mascouche, north of Montreal, had just taken the controls of a small boat in July 2017 when it veered off course and fatally struck Jennifer Ann Marie Innis, an Ontario mother of three.

He was tried twice and convicted in a Cuban provincial court, with the country's high court overruling the lower court each time. He had been prevented from leaving the country since the accident in Cayo Coco, a popular vacation destination for Canadians.

He has always maintained his innocence and has alleged the death was the result of negligence on the part of the excursion provider, Marlin SA, and its employees — Cuban nationals.

Benhamiche has argued he received little instruction on how to operate the craft and was assured it was easy to use and by no means dangerous. He has alleged he wasn't briefed on safety or legal obligations.

"My responsibility has never been demonstrated in the two trials in Cuba," Benhamiche said. "Neither in the building of the case or during the trial could they demonstrate my responsibility."

In Canada, the Benhamiche family has filed a $340,000 lawsuit against Sunwing Vacations, the tour operator with which they booked the vacation. The travel operator has previously said it will contest the lawsuit.

The family's lawyer, Julius Grey, said Friday that lawsuit will go ahead.

"It's all before the courts already. We're going to move that quite quickly now that he's here, because his testimony would be necessary," Grey said.

Benhamiche said a proper, thorough investigation of what happened was never carried out by Cuban officials regarding the watercraft.

He said his thoughts are with Innis and her family in this regard, and it saddens him that the truth surrounding the victim's death was camouflaged.

For now, his family will focus on finding some normalcy they had prior to July 2017.

"I will try to turn the page, without being able to remove it, because it remains a tragic event," Benhamiche said. "And with all accidents, it's clear there are psychological repercussions on all involved."

Kahina Bensaadi, Benhamiche's wife, said that after more than two years of highs and lows, she kept her hopes in check until she was able to touch her husband.

"I couldn't believe it. Up until the last second when I saw him cross the glass doors at the airport, I had a hard time believing it," she said, adding that she only told her daughters at the last minute out of fear they'd be disappointed.

Bensaadi said Canadian officials recently stepped up their efforts to help her husband.

But Theriault, who had championed Benhamiche's case, said Canada didn't do enough to help deal with the matter promptly and called it worrisome for those expecting help if they get into trouble abroad.

He said people should be prudent and not be under any illusions their rights will be completely protected when travelling abroad.

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