POLITICS

No defence witnesses or evidence being called in Via terror plot trial

02/26/2015 06:17 EST | Updated 04/28/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Two men accused of plotting to derail a passenger train travelling between Canada and the U.S. chose not to call any evidence or witnesses in their defence at their trial, clearing the way for the case to wrap up in the coming days

Crown lawyers have spent nearly four weeks presenting their side of the case against Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, who face multiple terror-related charges in the alleged plot targeting a train travelling from New York to Toronto.

In a surprising development after the Crown wrapped its arguments late Thursday afternoon, both Esseghaier, who is representing himself, and Jaser's lawyer indicated they would not be calling a defence.

Not-guilty pleas have been entered for both men, who were arrested in April 2013.

Justice Michael Code, who is presiding over the case, acknowledged that the evidentiary portion of the trial had concluded "much earlier than anticipated."

"We're four days into week four in what we thought would be a six to eight week trial," he told the jury, before explaining that closing submissions would be heard next week.

Code also delivered an explanation to the jury on Esseghaier's lack of participation in the trial so far.

Esseghaier, a Tunisian national who was pursuing his PhD in Montreal when he was arrested, has not cross-examined any of the Crown's witnesses or made any submissions before the jury. He had also remained silent when he was asked to enter a plea.

"Mr. Esseghaier has asked me to explain to you the reason why he has consistently remained silent throughout the trial, Code told the jury.

Esseghaier wanted to be tried under the laws of the Qur'an, and not the criminal code, and had made arguments on the matter in a pretrial motion, Code said.

The jury heard an excerpt of Esseghaier's motion, in which he said "the Holy Qur'an should be used as a unique reference for judgement in the matters of people's life" because "humans are not perfect, but God is perfect...so his laws are supreme laws."

Code went on to explain that he dismissed Esseghaier's motion and told him the trial would be carried out under the provisions of the criminal code, a ruling that Esseghaier didn't agree with.

"He explained to me, when the jury was summonsed, that his participation in the trial would signify his acceptance of the trial being conducted pursuant to the criminal code and not pursuant to the Holy Qur'an," Code said. "In these circumstances, he decided that he should not participate."

Code warned the jurors, however, that they must not come to any conclusions based on Esseghaier's decision.

"You must not draw any adverse inference from Mr. Esseghaier's decision to be present at his trial, but not to participate in it," he said.

"His non-participation in the trial is a circumstance that you should simply not take into consideration at all. It is irrelevant and carries no weight in relation to the decisions that you do have to make in this case."

The bulk of evidence presented at the trial has consisted of secret audio recordings of conversations Jaser and Esseghaier had with an undercover FBI agent who gained their trust while posing as a wealthy American businessman with radical views.

Court has heard the men muse on the recordings of using the alleged train plot as retaliation for western military action in Muslim lands.

A rift developed between Jaser and Esseghaier as they hammered out the finer details of their plot, however, with Jaser worried about the difficulties of attacking a train, the court heard.

Jaser, a permanent resident of Palestinian descent, eventually dropped out of the alleged plot altogether following an encounter with police while the men were on a scouting mission, the trial heard.

Esseghaier, however, continued to try to move the alleged plan forward, court heard.