NEWS

Suspects In Via Terror Plot Found Guilty

03/20/2015 04:01 EDT | Updated 05/20/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Two men accused of plotting to derail a passenger train travelling between Canada and the U.S. were found guilty of eight terrorism charges Friday, while a mistrial was declared on a ninth charge after the jury reached an impasse.

After a marathon 10 days of deliberations, the 12-member panel found Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier guilty of a terror-related conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison.

Jurors also convicted both men of two counts of participating in, or contributing to, the activity of a terrorist group. Esseghaier was found guilty of an additional count of the same offence.

The jury, however, remained deadlocked on a charge of a terrorism-related conspiracy to damage transportation property — in this case, a railway bridge.

Esseghaier, 32, was found guilty on that charge, but jurors could not agree on a verdict on the same charge against 37-year-old Jaser. As a result, Justice Michael Code, who presided over the case, declared mistrial on that charge.

Esseghaier — a Tunisian national who only wanted to be judged by the Qur'an — appeared unruffled as the verdict was read. He calmly repeated that he hadn't participated in the trial and didn't want to take part in sentencing arguments, scheduled for April 10.

Meanwhile, Jaser looked at the ceiling, then kept his right hand up to his face through the rest of the proceeding, biting his knuckles at one point.

His father looked upset as he sat in the front row, and one of Jaser's brothers put his hand on the older man's shoulder as the family left court.

Outside the courthouse, Jaser's lawyer said his client, a permanent resident of Palestinian descent, wasn't happy with the verdict.

"Raed is obviously disappointed, but he remains resilient, he remains strong, he continues to have confidence in us and continues to have confidence in the administration of justice," said John Norris.

Jaser may consider an appeal of the verdict, Norris added.

Norris had argued his client was only feigning interest in the alleged terror plot as part of an elaborate con to extract money from Esseghaier and an undercover FBI agent who befriended the pair.

Crown prosecutors had argued, however, that there was "overwhelming evidence" in the case to find both Jaser and Esseghaier guilty of all charges.

They had said Esseghaier travelled to Iran in 2012 where he met people he believed were jihadists. He returned to Canada intent on establishing a terrorist cell, and Jaser became a part of that cell, they argued.

"I would describe them as real serious public dangers, based on the evidence we heard," lead Crown prosecutor Croft Michaelson said of Jaser and Esseghaier after the verdicts were delivered.

"It was an overwhelming case and I stand by that."

Michaelson also thanked U.S. authorities for their help in the months-long investigation which led to Jaser and Esseghaier's arrest in April 2013.

The Crown's star witness in the case was the undercover FBI agent who gained Esseghaier and Jaser's trust, resulting in hours of secret audio recordings of their conversations, which made up the bulk of evidence in the case.

The trial, which began Feb. 2, heard 25 hours of those conversations in which Jaser and Esseghaier were heard musing about alleged terror plots which could be carried out in retaliation for Canadian military action in Muslim lands.

In one of the recordings, Jaser was heard saying "everyone is a target" and that he wanted "the whole country to burn," while Esseghaier was heard saying the killing of innocent women and children was justified because "the necessity of saving religion, it's more higher than the necessity of saving your life."

Esseghaier, who had been pursuing his PhD in Montreal at the time of his arrest, did not mount a defence, saying he was opposed to being tried under the Criminal Code. As a result he didn't cross-examine any witnesses, didn't take the stand and frequently fell asleep in the prisoner's box.

In his written closing statement, however, Esseghaier did offer the jury his "sincere advice," urging them to apply the Qur'an to every aspect of their life and prepare for "judgment day."

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the trial demonstrated that "the threat of terrorism is real," and applauded the jury's decision in what he called a "disturbing case."