Two men and a teenager who were labelled “suspicious” after taking detailed pictures at a busy downtown Vancouver mall are speaking out after their images went viral in local media Friday.
British pizza shop owner Mohammed Sharaz, who lives in Manchester, came to Vancouver for treatment for his fourteen-year-old son’s retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that is slowly taking the teen’s eyesight.
A friend with vision problems also came along for treatment at Wellspring Clinic for Holistic Medicine.
“It’s a case of [my son] going blind - or we have to spend the money and bring him here to give him a better life,” said Sharaz, adding his son Salahuddin Sharaz lives with several disabilities, including hearing and vision issues.
The trio visited Pacific Centre Mall on Tuesday, and took some photos. Two days passed uneventfully - until Friday morning, when Sharaz went online and was shocked to see surveillance photos of all three men on the news.
“I said ‘look we're on TV - you two are taking pictures and they think we're up to no good,’” recalled Sharaz, noting he bought his son a phone because the teen likes to take pictures of things so he remembers them.
“[My son] likes to show his friends, his brother, his sister that ‘look, I saw this car, I saw this.’ Because that’s how he learns,” Sharaz said, noting his friend also takes pictures of everything because of his severe vision issues. “Anything he sees he likes to film – that’s how he remembers stuff.”
The images were part of a leaked police bulletin about three “suspicious Middle Eastern men” who police said were taking 360-degree videos and snapping photos of various entrances and exits of the shopping centre.
Sharaz immediately contacted Vancouver police, and the matter was quickly resolved.
“The way the police handled it themselves, I think its fine,” he said. “It’s justified because there's a lot of evil that goes on in the world.”
Officers were very polite and respectful, Sharaz says, but he questions how the internal police bulletin got out.
“The way they put our pictures out there without our faces being blurred, that’s caused damage and we can't take that back,” said Sharaz. “We've got a child who is 14-years-old. He's not an adult…it’s going to cause him some sort of trauma.”
In a press conference Friday, police downplayed the event, saying suspicious incidents are routinely investigated by the force and there was no evidence that the men committed a crime – or that the public was at risk.
VPD Chief Adam Palmer said information about the mall incident was sent out to forces across the province through an internal bulletin, but it was never meant to be made public.
This particular bulletin was somehow leaked to the media outlet Vancity Buzz, although the force isn’t sure who would have passed on the info. Palmer said the VPD wasn’t planning on going public with the story because they didn’t think it was serious enough.
Hours after the press conference police said they had spoken to the men who took the photos, and that they were cooperative with investigators.
Vancity Buzz editor in chief Farhan Mohamed said shortly before police cleared the men that the outlet published the story because it was in the public interest.
He later said in a statement that he welcomed the news that the men had been located and their actions deemed innocent.
Journalist Salim Jiwa thinks that it’s odd that Vancouver police are being so nonchalant about the leak.
“The police simply shrugged off the idea one of their terrorism memos had been leaked out,” he said. “In the past people have been prosecuted for leaking sensitive information. I want the police to investigate who leaked this memo to a small website instead of mainstream media. That was a plot, in my opinion.”
Jiwa thinks the trio is owed some apologies – from both police and from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
“I felt extremely sad we had taken two handicapped people and turned them into essentially part of a terrorist investigation, by innuendo,” Jiwa said. “I felt compelled in my heart to say sorry to them on behalf of Canadians.”
As for Sharaz, he says he’s not angry at police, but he’s concerned some people are still suspicious. He wanted to spend the weekend touring iconic Vancouver sites such as Stanley Park – but is concerned about local vigilantes.
“We're really careful, we have to look around. You know is someone looking at us what’s happening,” he said. “We haven't been outside since yesterday.”
With files from CTV Vancouver’s Shannon Paterson and The Canadian Press