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Five Canadian diplomats sue Canadian government for handling of Cuba mystery illness

The Canadian Embassy in Havana. (Desmond Boylan/AP)

TORONTO — Five Canadian diplomats and their families filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging the Canadian government failed to sufficiently deal with the mysterious brain injuries that they suffered while posted to the embassy in Cuba and actively interfered with their ability to seek medical care.

“Throughout the crisis, 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 statement of claim alleged.

The plaintiffs, who are unnamed, include five diplomats, two spouses and seven children. They are suing for 28 million Canadian dollars, or about $21 million.

The court filing comes one week after Canada’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was withdrawing up to half of its diplomatic staff in Cuba after another one of its diplomats fell ill with the unexplained symptoms that have afflicted a total of 40 Canadian and American diplomats and their family members in Havana.

The newest case marked the 14th time a Canadian has been affected by the bizarre illness, sometimes referred to as “Havana syndrome.”

“We hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but we really had no choice,” said one of the plaintiffs, a career diplomat who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because he is still employed by the government and not authorized to speak on the record. “We’ve been let down.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Washington, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the health and safety of Canada’s diplomats and their families is the government’s “foremost concern,” but she declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

At a news conference Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “There’s no question that the health impacts on diplomats in Cuba have been visible and real.”

Both Canadian and American officials remain mystified by what is causing the symptoms, which include brain injury, dizziness, nosebleeds and loss of hearing and concentration. Some neurologists are puzzled because the brain scans of the victims look just like those of people with concussions, but none of the victims suffered head trauma.

U.S. diplomats began reporting symptoms in November 2016, and the State Department began evacuating some of its personnel from Havana in early 2017.

According to the statement of claim, it was then that an American neighbor told one of the plaintiffs that U.S. diplomats were suffering unexplained symptoms — possibly caused by an attack by a foreign power — and were being evacuated to the United States. The plaintiff, who was suffering the same symptoms, alleges he relayed this information to Canadian Ambassador Patrick Parisot but was told by the embassy to keep it secret and not to share it with colleagues or family members.

In the meantime, more Canadian diplomats and their family members fell ill. According to the statement of claim, the plaintiffs allege they were told that their illnesses were “psychosomatic,” leading to questions of whether they were faking it.

Why Canada kept its diplomats in place even as the United States was evacuating its own is one of the questions at the center of the lawsuit, said John Kingman Phillips, a lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs.

“The stakes are the degree to which Canada will step up, protect and keep from harm our diplomats at their postings,” he added.

Some newly arrived diplomats, the statement of claim alleges, were posted to the same houses where diplomats had experienced symptoms. When one diplomat complained about the housing situation, she says in the claim, she was told “budgetary constraints were determinative.”

In April 2018, more than a year after Canadian officials first reported the bizarre symptoms, Canada evacuated the family members of diplomats and forbade them from accompanying them to their postings in Havana. Diplomats in Cuba were also given the option of returning to Canada if they wished.

The statement of claim also alleges that the Canadian government placed restrictions on where the plaintiffs could go for treatment.

In one case, two Canadian diplomats and their families sought treatment at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Brain Injury and Repair, which had already been studying the brains of American diplomats. They allege that Canadian officials used diplomatic channels in the United States to tell the center to stop testing the Canadians.

Last November, Canada’s Foreign Ministry arranged for doctors at Dalhousie University in Halifax to study the brains of seven diplomats and their family members. The exams revealed brain damage in all of those tested, but the tests were only an assessment; no one was treated.

And it was too little, too late, according to the plaintiffs.

The diplomat who spoke to The Post said his wife continues to suffer debilitating hearing problems. She will often pick up the phone and forget why and has called him crying because she can’t remember her way home. His children can’t process information as quickly as they used to, and he experiences dizziness and trouble walking in a straight line, he said.

“The way this whole thing has been handled is crazy,” he said. “We’ve been told we would be taken care of, but it’s been two years and we’re still trying to get the help we need.”

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