Two men accused of trying to carry out an al-Qaeda supported plot to derail a Via passenger train made separate court appearances in different provinces today, with early indications that both will likely plead not guilty to the charges.
"He's in a state of shock and disbelief," lawyer John Norris said of his client, 35-year-old Raed Jaser, speaking to crowds of reporters outside the Toronto courthouse.
"He's anxious to see the evidence that the Crown says it has against him."
Jaser, of Toronto, along with Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, is facing several charges including conspiracy to commit murder for the benefit of a terrorist group, conspiracy to interfere with transportation facilities for the benefit of a terrorist group and participating in a terrorist group.
Esseghaier has also been charged with instructing someone to carry out an activity for the benefit of a terrorist group.
A judge granted a publication ban on the Toronto proceedings in a brief court appearance where Jaser was remanded in custody his next appearance May 23.
His father, Mohammed Jaser, spoke to a crush of journalists outside the courthouse.
"I don't know nothing," he said. "Let the police do their job."
In another packed courtroom in Montreal, a bearded Esseghaier, who RCMP say has no fixed address, declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer.
He made a brief statement in French in which he called the allegations against him unfair.
"The conclusions were made based on acts and words which are only appearances," he said. The judge cut him off saying that he should not address the charges against him at this time and will be given the chance to do so at a later date.
Esseghaier was remanded into custody and flown to an airport north of Toronto on Tuesday afternoon. An RCMP spokesperson said the court proceedings will be held entirely in Ontario.
RCMP said suspects watched trains in Toronto area
Neither man is a Canadian citizen, but each was in the country legally. RCMP did not say where either man was from or how they came to live in Canada, but The Canadian Press said Esseghaier is believed to be Tunisian.
An earlier report said Jaser was from the United Arab Emirates, but the country issued a press release saying that neither were nationals of the U.A.E.
Jaser, who appeared in court with a long beard and wearing a grey sweater, is a permanent resident who has lived in the country for 20 years, Norris said. He said it was "notable" that the arrest came on the same day as the House of Commons debated an anti-terrorism bill.
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Jennifer Strachan, chief superintendent of RCMP criminal operations in the province of Ontario, said Monday the two suspects watched trains and railways in the Greater Toronto Area.
"We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack," she told reporters.
There was a specific route targeted, not necessarily a specific train, Strachan said, although she declined to reveal the route. Police said the attack was not imminent.
According to a Reuters report, U.S. law enforcement and national security sources said the alleged plot targeted a rail line between Toronto and New York City. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly run routes between Canada and the U.S. Both companies say they're working with authorities.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said the two accused were getting "direction and guidance" from al-Qaeda elements in Iran. There was no information to suggest the attacks were state-sponsored, he said.
Iran's foreign minister rejected as "ridiculous" Canada's claim that the two arrested were backed by al-Qaeda in Iran.
"If the news that you are announcing is true, this is the most hilarious thing I've heard in my 64 years," the ISNA news agency reported Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi saying today. "We hope Canadian officials show a little wisdom and pay attention to the world's public opinion and intelligence."
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Search warrants were executed at a number of homes in both Toronto and Montreal.
Half of a duplex was cordoned off by police tape in the Markham, Ont., area northeast of Toronto last night as officers questioned neighbours.
A neighbour, Sanjay Chaudhery, said Jaser lives with his wife in a basement apartment. He told CBC News that the couple had lived in Toronto for at least a year and kept to themselves.
"Even if I was working in my backyard, they used to cover their windows and doors," Chaudhery said.
"It's strange, surprising, shocking," he said of the arrests. "I'm worried — what's happening to my neighbourhood?"
Esseghaier was born in Tunisia and had studied at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec. More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique in Varennes, Que.
"His thesis was on nanosensors and he was in one of our research centres," Julie Martineau said in an interview with The Canadian Press about the PhD student, who's enrolled in the faculty of energy materials and telecommunications.
Esseghaier's LinkedIn profile reveals that he took part in writing a number of biology research papers, including those that focused on HIV and cancer detection.
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He also attended scientific conferences that included the World Congress on Biosensors in Cancun in 2012 and the Photonics North Conference in Montreal in 2012 and the TechConnect World Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2012.
His profile also said he speaks Arabic, French and English.
Some students who knew him said he had extreme views on religion.
Faouzi Bellili, a doctoral student at INRS, said that a few months ago Esseghaier had told him he shouldn't help Canadians because they are non-believers.
"I actually told my wife, keep an eye on this guy, he's dangerous," he said. However, Bellili added that he didn't believe Esseghaier could harm anyone.
RCMP credits Muslim community
RCMP credited the Muslim community with a crucial role in the case, saying it was a tip to police that helped them uncover the alleged plot.
"What we're hoping is that the Canadian community realizes that the lead for this that tipped off the RCMP came from the Muslim community," said Hussein Hamdani, an Ontario lawyer and a member of Public Safety Canada's Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security.
"The Canadian Muslim community is a partner in making Canada more safe and secure."
Imam Yusuf Badat, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, said the Muslim community was thanked before Monday's news conference. A "prominent community leader" came forward with the tip, but he didn't know who it was, he said.
Asked about a backlash, he said: "I’m confident that Canadians are great people, and they won’t put the blame on the general Canadian public for the actions of a few."
Badat said radicalization can be prevented by getting people involved in civic engagement.
"Learn Islam from the right sources, rather than being radicalized through these internet videos," he said.