Further mental assessment in Via terror case 'complicated': judge

Issue of Chiheb Esseghaier's mental health has raised questions over whether he is fit to participate in legal process

TORONTO – A Toronto judge said he needed more time to consider whether a further mental health assessment was necessary for a man found guilty in a terror plot to derail a passenger train, calling the matter a “very complicated” one during a court session on Friday.

The issue of Chiheb Esseghaier’s mental health, which came up during his sentencing hearing, has brought into question whether the Tunisian national is fit to participate in the legal process.

Justice Michael Code has been mulling over whether to order a fresh mental health assessment after Crown lawyers said they want one.

That followed an assessment from a psychiatrist who testified she believed Esseghaier is unable to participate in his sentencing hearing because he is likely schizophrenic.

Code was to deliver his decision on ordering a further assessment on Friday afternoon but when court reconvened, he said the issue is “much more complicated” than he thought.

Code said he still hadn’t decided if a second assessment for Esseghaier was needed, and even if it was, he said there were serious jurisdictional issues around assessing the mental fitness of someone who has already been convicted.

Esseghaier and his co-accused Raed Jaser were found guilty in March of a terror-related conspiracy to commit murder — which carries a sentence of up to life in prison — and six other terror-related charges between them.

Esseghaier, who is self-represented, is deeply religious and wanted to be tried under the Qur’an.

He has gone on rambling rants in the courtroom on occasion but his mental state only became an issue after court hear testimony this week from the psychiatrist who examined him.

Esseghaier called Dr. Lisa Ramshaw’s diagnosis “lies” and expressed his anger in court at her testimony.

Ramshaw’s assessment of Esseghaier was ordered in May at the request of a lawyer appointed to assist Esseghaier through the legal process.

Code has asked Crown lawyers if they would consider reframing their request for a further fitness assessment for Esseghaier under the Mental Health Act, as opposed to the Criminal Code.

“The biggest difficulty I’m having is with jurisdiction,” he said. “The whole criminal code regime for fitness at trial has nothing to do with this case.”

The Crown said while it preferred to have the matter dealt with under the Criminal Code, it still wanted another assessment of Esseghaier through whatever route was deemed best.

Esseghaier, meanwhile, put his own conditions on any further assessment — he sought to either have Ramshaw withdraw her report, or have the court remove her assessment from his file.

“If one of those two options are not fulfilled I will not accept the second assessment,” he said. “I will fight up to my death, I don’t care.”

Code told Esseghaier that he too had concerns about Ramshaw’s report and suggested the man allow the second assessment if it was ordered so that it could be compared to Ramshaw’s work.

“It’s for me to make the final decision on which report I accept,” he told Esseghaier. “Dr. Ramshaw’s assessment, I’ve got a lot of trouble with. I’m not impressed by it.”

The ordering of any further fitness assessment for Esseghaier could have implications for Jaser, whose lawyer has said he will ask for his client’s sentencing to be adjourned.

During Jaser and Esseghaier’s trial, court heard that an undercover FBI agent gained the men’s trust and surreptitiously recorded their conversations, which made up the bulk of the evidence in the case.

The two were recorded speaking about alleged terror plots they would conduct in retaliation for Canada’s military actions in Muslim countries, including the derailment of a Via Rail train travelling between New York and Toronto.

Code is expected to deliver his decision on whether to order another assessment for Esseghaier on Wednesday.

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