Why are terrorists getting off easy? - Macleans.ca

Why are terrorists getting off easy?

The prosecutors are thrilled with all the guilty verdicts, the sentences are a different story


Canadian Press/ REUTERS

When he wasn’t busy with his day job—fixing computers at the Department of Foreign Affairs—Momin Khawaja was toiling away in his Ottawa basement, building a remote-controlled detonator for aspiring terrorists in the United Kingdom. (He dubbed his deadly creation the “Hi-fi Digimonster.”) Convicted of multiple charges in 2008, Khawaja was staring at a potentially monumental sentence: two life terms, plus an additional 44 years behind bars. The judge gave him 15 years instead. He will be eligible for parole in 2014.

Saad Khalid could be a free man much sooner. A core member of the so-called “Toronto 18,” he confessed to his role in a conspiracy to detonate three simultaneous truck bombs in Ontario, a crime that also carried a maximum life sentence. He got 14 years—minus seven for time already served while awaiting trial. If Khalid behaves himself, parole is a possibility in 2012.

Saad Gaya was even more fortunate. The McMaster University honours student pleaded guilty to the same crime as Khalid (they were arrested together while unloading a truck full of ammonium nitrate) and threw himself at the mercy of the court. His sentence? Twelve years. Gaya can apply for parole next year.

It’s been nearly a decade since Parliament scrambled to introduce Canada’s post-9/11 Anti-Terrorism Act, and a dozen convictions later—not to mention three thwarted bomb plots—the law has proven its worth. But while prosecutors are thrilled with all the guilty verdicts, the sentences are a different story. Four times now, the Crown has appealed the punishment meted out to a convicted terrorist—including the “manifestly inadequate” terms given to Khawaja, Khalid and Gaya. “Anyone convicted of participation in a serious attempt to perpetrate a major terrorist bombing should be under penal supervision for life,” prosecutors wrote in one recent court filing. “The magnitude of the damage they stand to do, both to human lives and our way of life, demand nothing less.”

Yet the only two Canadian terrorists who did receive life sentences—Zakaria Amara, the Toronto 18 ringleader, and Said Namouh, a wannabe suicide bomber who spread al-Qaeda propaganda from his Quebec computer—have filed their own appeals. Amara calls his life term “unduly harsh and excessive,” while Namouh’s lawyer compared the punishment (ironically enough) to “killing a fly with an atomic bomb.”

The competing petitions will force the country’s higher courts to answer some tricky questions about what distinguishes one terrorist from another. Zakaria Amara, who dreamed of mass murder in the name of Islam, now insists he is a changed man. Does he deserve to spend more time in jail than Momin Khawaja, an obvious radical who has expressed not a shred of remorse? Prosecutors are not demanding a life sentence for Khalid or Gaya, but the Crown does want both men to spend a few more years in prison. But what is the real difference between a 14-year term and an 18-year term?

“It’s all about appearances,” says Khalid’s lawyer, Russell Silverstein. “Certainly terrorism is a serious offence, but just because someone has been convicted of a terrorist offence doesn’t mean you can discard all the old case law that dictates how a person is sentenced. Mr. Khalid had never been in trouble before, he is extraordinarily remorseful, and he is already dissuaded from ever doing anything like this again. All those things have to be weighed in the balance.”

Decisions are expected by the end of the year. “It’s very significant what the outcomes of these appeals are going to be,” says professor Wesley Wark, a security expert at the University of Toronto. “At the end of the day, this set of cases is going to be the precedent upon which future terrorists are going to be looked at.”


Why are terrorists getting off easy?

  1. I really want to believe in the impartiality of our Canadian judges, but lately it is very difficult to do so as somehow I got this impression with quite a number of ridiculous sentencing, that our judges are there to protect the criminals. I hope the government of the day when these terrorists will be released, will be there to boot these terrorist out of the country after their release.

  2. Mr. Khalid had never been in trouble before, he is extraordinarily remorseful, and he is already dissuaded from ever doing anything like this again. All those things have to be weighed in the balance.

    Actually, I agree with that. IF the line about remorse and certainty of no reoffending is true. If it is not, and especially if it is obviously not, then why can't "dangerous offender" provisions apply like they do to certain sexual predators?

  3. When terrorists reoffend. many could die. But then judges or previous judges, just easily could tell the government of the day (and the tax payers) to pay up.

  4. Why are terrorists getting off easy?

    Because we look at them through the same lens as terrorists who WERE successful. The courts usually punish you for what you DID more seriously than what you WANTED to do.

    Secondly, the court's are smarter than armchair, emotion-laden pundits who do a poor job of hiding their racism. The courts have evidence of bit players and wannabe's not hard-core zealots. That goes a long way.

    Third, law and politics are intimately intertwined and so sentences will tend to reflect the politics of the day. We tend to be moving towards a path of the 'Americanization' of our legal system, which in terrorism cases, wants to take the heavy-handed approach to terrorism. Actually, we need to move towards a softer approach – one in which sentencing is appropriate but serves as a deterrent also.

    Many of them will get out before you know it. Let's hope they have had some help with counselling in jail otherwise, they may well emerge more bitter and angrier than when they got in.

    • Freddie, you are a softie, like the judges. When these murderous nuts get out, you damn well be certain they will be more determined to do harm. You are an apologist playing the race card to excuse the sentences. Wake up and smell the coffee. Say what you want about the Americans but they recognize this fact and if these same defendents were in an American court, they would likely rot a long time in jail and if they ever did get out, they would be old and feeble.

      • Yeah they would rot like all the "terrorists" accused in the orchestration of 9/11 in American Jails!

        Oh wait, ALL of those "suspects" were released without charges.

        Too bad. They were looking for terrorists in the wrong place. They don't hang around New York. They tend to dwell in pentagon shaped buildings and big white houses.

        Fact: When the 9/11 commissions' report addresses who paid for 9/11, it doesn't say they know or don't know. It says that it is "of little consequence".

        I don't think the American model is one to follow!

        Wake up and smell… the Orwellian state.

  5. In my view, treachery in wartime merits a different standard from ordinary criminal conduct. Treachery intended to cause the deaths of civlians is even worse.

    I would like to have seen revocation of citizenship and banishment from Canada for life as a bare minimum after the jail sentence.

    • I agree – perhaps we don't want to be heavy-handed in costly jail sentences but we can, at least, ensure that these deviants never re-enter Canada. For me, anybody planning the kind of ideological crime that they are deserves no second opportunity.

  6. I find it interesting that whenever the judicial body is negatively commented on, there suddenly appears an article or two defending judicial independence and how Canadians don't understand. Yet the judges themselves, for all their vaunted independence, seem to be bound by precedence with case law as their only bible. Apparently free or independent reasoning only applies as far as whatever a previous superior court decided.

    Many judges appear to strongly believe in oversight committees for various government organizations however I have yet to hear of a judicial inquiry recommending one for the judicial system/lawyers societies.

    In the case of the terrorist sentences – does it really matter? Corrections Services/Canada Parole will ensure they are out as soon as possible (hopefully before the court recesses for the day). The length of the sentence is only a vague guideline as to how fast they can be back out in the public.

  7. that's a damn fine job the police and csis did. a damn fine job.