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'It’s not something that you can forget:' female passenger testifies at Halifax taxi sexual assault case

Saher Hamdan is facing a sexual assault charge related to a 19-year-old woman he drove in his cab last July.

Saher Hamdan cover his head from cameras with a hoodie as he leaves a Halifax provincial courtroom on Wednesday afternoon.

Jeff Harper / Metro

Saher Hamdan cover his head from cameras with a hoodie as he leaves a Halifax provincial courtroom on Wednesday afternoon.

The credibility and drinking habits of a young woman involved in a taxi sexual assault case were called into question Wednesday, although the Crown said any inconsistencies on “minute details” were understandable with hours of cross-examination, and the case is not about whether she was intoxicated.

Saher H. Hamdan appeared at Halifax provincial court for a day-long sexual assault trial, related to events from July 15, 2016. The court heard Hamdan picked up the young woman from the Lower Deck in Clayton Park around 8:30 p.m and drove her to a friend’s house in Halifax, where the complainant said Hamdan told her the payment system was down and needed to be re-started, offered her a cigarette, touched her leg a few times without her consent, reached between her legs to pull a latch and slide back her seat, she heard the door lock, and he asked if he could kiss her, before her friend tapped on the window and she left the car.

“I was terrified,” the complainant said in her testimony Wednesday, speaking to Crown attorney Cory Roberts.

“I’m not that big. I’m 19 years old, and I was sitting in the front seat of a cab that I was supposed to be able to trust. Nobody has that encounter and walks out of it saying like ‘Oh yeah I’m fine,’ blowing it off.”

The Hamdan case comes less than a month after Judge Gregory Lenehan's decision to acquit taxi driver Bassam Al-Rawi of sexually assaulting a passenger who was passed out in his cab drew national attention.

The complainant said after she told Hamdan no to him kissing her, his voice became lower and was obviously angry although he didn’t raise his arms. She testified he said “why not?” as she leaned against the door. The court heard her friend then tapped on the window and Hamdan said “I guess I’m not going to make you pay then,” and she left.

Hamdan turned himself into police after a press release went out on July 21 describing the incident, and voluntarily identified himself as the driver as well as provided a statement on July 25. He did not testify Wednesday.

During the trial, Judge Michael Sherar heard testimony from a Casino Taxi manager who testified Hamdan drove for their company until charges were laid in August 2016; Const. Kathryn Willett with the Sexual Assault Investigative Team (SAIT) who interviewed Hamdan and the complainant; the complainant herself; and her 19-year-old friend who she was in an intimate relationship with at the time.

Texts between the complainant and her friend were also read in court, with her telling him she was on her way, that she was outside waiting for payment system to be fixed, then just after 10 p.m. for him to come outside because of a “creepy cabbie,” and hurry.

Her friend said after he brought the complainant inside, she had “a lot of consistent crying” for about an hour.

The most extensive testimony came from the complainant (who cannot be named due to a publication ban) as she testified and then was cross-examined for nearly three hours, broken up by multiple recesses and a lunch break.

She said she didn’t want to call police at first because she didn’t know the rooflight or type of the cab, so it would be hard to find out who was driving and “you don’t think that people are going to care.”

In her testimony she described Hamdan grazing her arm and maybe her leg on the drive to her friend’s apartment, but defence lawyer John O’Neill later pointed out she had told police in her statement he grazed only her arm.

Multiple times, O’Neill asked the complainant where her legs were in the cab at different points, whether she had raised one leg to the dash, when in the series of events did Hamdan hold up coffee to her mouth for her to drink or move back her seat, and said it was a “significant” point whether her leg was on the dashboard as she initially told police, or propped on the inner side compartment of the door which she said Wednesday.

When Roberts asked her why she put her leg on the door, the complainant said she was scared and there was another incident where something similar had happened with a man and she couldn’t get away so she kicked him.

Roberts asked if that was the plan, and the complainant said “If need be, yes,” her voice slightly breaking with tears in her eyes.

O’Neill also asked the complainant to review her police statement many times when discussing timelines, although the complainant said she had only skimmed it as she didn’t want to be reminded of the incident.

When O’Neill asked if she’d agree that her recollection in her police statement at the time was more accurate than months later, she said no - because “it’s not something that you can forget as much as you try.”

O’Neill also asked extensive questions about how much alcohol the complainant drank at the Lower Deck from roughly 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. When she said a pitcher of beer, shot of whiskey, Long Island Iced Tea and couple other drinks from a second pitcher, he asked whether she knew how many pints went in a pitcher (per ounce) and how many ounces would have been in her mixed drink, which she did not know.

Although the complainant testified she was not drunk “at all” and handles alcohol well, which her friend agreed to since he said she wasn’t slurring her words and walked straight, O’Neill said her position “is just not in keeping with how most people see the world.” He said common sense tells you one drink begins a deterioration of motor skills, and whether your perception of events is “accurate and reliable.”

“I know what happened, okay. It’s been almost six months, so my timing may be a little off, but I know what happened," the complainant said.

The Crown argued the complainant’s testimony was straightforward on the important pieces of evidence, and the case is not about intoxication as she didn’t appear to have memory issues. While she often seemed frustrated and “not eager” to be in court, the Crown said that’s no reason to reject her testimony. Roberts added she was cross-examined extensively on “very minute details.”

“This is a scary situation for (the complainant), it’s happening quickly, and … most ordinary people, Your Honour, would not remember exactly where their feet were placed and the order when they moved their feet around the cab,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that in this case physical touching for sexual purpose is sexual assault, and Hamdan should be found guilty.

O’Neill said his defence rests on a “three-pronged” approach: that the complainant’s evidence lacks the necessary credibility or reliability for a conviction, the evidence doesn’t support a finding that her “sexual integrity” was violated, and thirdly if the court does find the integrity was violated then Hamdan had honest belief in consent.

Judge Sherar said a written brief from the defence would be needed relating to the complainant’s credibility and whether her sexual integrity was violated, with a possible Crown response, and pushed ahead the matter until a transciption of the complainant’s testimony could be made. The matter will return June 9 for the brief, and to likely set dates for Sherar’s decision.

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