Two men charged in an alleged al-Qaida supported terror plot to attack a Via Rail passenger train disputed the allegations against them Tuesday as they made their first appearances in court.
Raed Jaser, 35, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, are facing several terrorism charges each in what the RCMP is calling the first known alleged plot in Canada directed by the terrorist organization.
Esseghaier appeared in court in Montreal wearing the same blue-striped black windbreaker, dark pants and white sneakers he was photographed wearing just after noon yesterday, when he was arrested at Montreal’s Via Rail train station—part of the very network he and an accomplice allegedly planned to bomb.
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During the court appearance Esseghaier attempted to address the court, suggesting the case against him was not solid by saying the court was coming to conclusions based on appearances. “All the conclusions were made from facts and words that are but appearances,” he said.
But judge Pierre Labelle told the accused, who refused the help of a court-appointed attorney, that it wasn’t the right venue to discuss it.
The PhD student doing doctoral research on nanosensors is facing five charges, including instructing someone to carry out an activity for the benefit of a terrorist group.
Both he and Jaser are charged with conspiracy to murder for the benefit of a terrorist group, participating in a terrorist group and conspiring to interfere with transportation facilities for the benefit of a terrorist group. Esseghaier faces an additional count of participating in a terrorist group.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
Jaser’s lawyer said outside court in Toronto that his client “is in a state of shock and disbelief.”
“He denies the allegations and he will vigorously defend them,” John Norris said. “Mr. Jaser is presumed innocent of these charges, just as any other person who would be facing such a charge is to be presumed innocent.”
Several family members attended the brief court appearance of Jaser, who wore a long beard and a black skullcap over his short, curly hair. His father, Mohammed Jaser, beat a hasty retreat from the courthouse amid a crush of journalists and was reluctant to answer any questions.
“Of course I am supporting my son, of course,” he said as about two dozen journalists surrounded him. “Let the police do their job.”
Jaser and Esseghaier were arrested and charged Monday in an alleged plot that the RCMP said involved “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida members in Iran. The accused had the capacity to carry out an attack, but there was no “imminent threat” to the public, the RCMP said.
There was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored by Iran, police added.
Tehran denied any links with an alleged plot and said the terrorist network had no presence in Iran.
The country’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday that groups such as al-Qaida have “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields.”
He called the Canadian claims part of Ottawa’s hostile policies against Tehran.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations after Canada closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012 and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.
The wording of the charges against the two suspects suggests the RCMP believes the alleged plot was being hatched largely between April 1 and Sept. 25, 2012. The most recent allegations — Esseghaier’s additional charge of participating in a terrorist group — are listed as ending two months ago, on Feb. 14.
Jaser’s lawyer questioned the timing of the arrests, calling it “a bit of a mystery.”
“They’ve been very clear that there was no risk to public safety and it’s surprising to say the least that this arrest would be made now, close on the heels of the events in Boston and timed perfectly with what was happening in the House of Commons yesterday,” Norris said outside court.
“I don’t know what their purposes were but the timing is notable.”
The House of Commons debated Monday a piece of legislation that would give police more powers in the event of terrorist attacks. Among other things, it creates a new criminal offence that would apply to people leaving Canada for the purpose of committing certain terrorist acts abroad.
The nationalities of the two suspects have not been confirmed by Canadian authorities. Muslim community leaders who were briefed by the RCMP on the arrests were told one is Tunisian and one is from the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates embassy in Ottawa said neither of the two men were UAE passport holders and they are working with the Canadian government to determine what connection, if any, they had with that country.
Jaser is a permanent resident who has been in Canada for 20 years, Norris said.
Esseghaier was doing a doctorate at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Varennes, Que., near Montreal. He started his work in 2010 and was in the editing stage of his thesis on nanosensors that he was scheduled to complete in the fall of 2014, said spokeswoman Julie Martineau.
Several U.S. media reports have cited sources familiar with the investigation saying the alleged plot targeted a passenger train between Toronto and New York City.
Via Rail and Amtrak jointly operate trains between Canada and the U.S. Bothe companies have said they are co-operating with law enforcement authorities.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday Canada has kept N.Y. authorities posted on the investigation, but declined to discuss details.
Both suspects in the Via Rail investigation were remanded in custody Tuesday at least until the next procedural steps in their cases.
Esseghaier’s court appearance Tuesday came after a busy 24 hours. According to federal prosecutor Richard Roy, RCMP officer Dave Ouellette approached Esseghaier shortly after noon Monday at the Macdonald’s in Central Station in downtown Montreal. Ouellette was familiar with the investigation and recognized the suspect, Roy told judge Pierre Labelle. “Just before making the arrest, Mr. Ouellette called out his name and the man responded with ‘yes’, confirming his identity.”
Esseghaier was flown to Toronto for interrogation, only to be flown back this morning for his appearance in Montreal. Roy, who called the hearing a “formality” shortly before appearing before Judge Labelle, explained that because he was arrested without a warrant, Esseghaier had to be remanded in front of a judge in the province in which he was arrested.
— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Nicholas Kohler and Martin Patriquin