September 29, 2008

Terrorism laws pass their first test as youth convicted in homegrown plot

With a report from Kirk Makin


BRAMPTON, ONT. -- The Canadian Crown has, for the first time, successfully prosecuted a crime designated as an act of terrorism, thanks to the wide net cast by new laws.

A 20-year-old man was yesterday found to be an "eager acolyte" to more senior suspects who discussed storming Parliament, and exploding truck bombs in downtown Toronto. Despite the fact there was no evidence that he planned, or even knew about, any specific plot, he was found guilty of participating in a terrorist group.

The ruling may influence coming trials in this case - which became renowned as an example of "homegrown terrorism"- and others, and likely lead to new arrests, experts say.

The experts added that the weaknesses in the case illustrate how strong the law is.

"The ruling may indicate that 'participation in terrorism' becomes the favoured charge, much as 'material support for terrorism' has south of the border," University of Toronto law Professor Kent Roach said of a charge laid in dozens of U.S. cases.

Mr. Justice John Sproat's 94-page ruling released yesterday is not binding on other judges, but could have "significant adverse implications" for other accused, Mr. Roach said, even as early as next month when an Ottawa terrorism trial wraps up.

The law professor also pointed out that yesterday's verdict was "a different result," than that of a B.C. trial against two men in connection with a much more heinous crime. In 2005, after a two-decade RCMP investigation, two men were acquitted of planting a suitcase bomb that killed more than 300 people on a 1985 Air India flight.

The two men were charged under traditional Criminal Code laws that did not explicitly address acts of terrorism.

The provisions of 2001's Anti-Terrorism Act were invoked in the more recent case to thwart the nascent plans of a highly infiltrated group whose most peripheral members - including the man convicted yesterday - were under age at the time of their arrest.

Despite the marginal nature of the case, Canada's security agencies are buoyed that a terrorism conviction is finally on the books. "All of the folks on this file are really breathing better on it ... It's a big confidence builder," said Senator Colin Kenny, who heads a committee that probes national-security agencies.

The defence bar was less enthused. "A lot of passive followers, listeners and wannabes are going to get caught up in the sweep of the new law," said lawyer Frank Addario.

The suspect was portrayed by the defence as, if not exactly a babe in the woods, an impressionable 17-year-old Islamic convert who ended up in a winter woodland training camp north of Toronto.

His identity is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and his 10 adult co-accused have yet to face trial.

But the evidence was that he was under the sway of senior suspects, including a Svengali figure just a couple of years older. The ringleader was caught on tape brainstorming a host of schemes that failed to reach fruition, and uttering hateful jihadist rhetoric.

About a dozen young Muslims in their teens and 20s came out to the camp, bringing military fatigues, paintball guns and a 9-millimetre handgun. Judge Sproat had sharp words for defence arguments the camp was an exercise in outdoorsmanship.

"Engaging in activities such as paint-balling, physical exercise and rafting is by no means inconsistent with the existence of a terrorist group," he wrote. He also pointed out that suspects need not have hatched epic, nor even very professional plans, to be guilty of terrorist crimes.

Even if the youth arrived at the camp ignorant of the group's purpose, he left much better informed, Judge Sproat ruled. He cited the ringleader's fireside speeches urging all-out attacks against the West.

" ... Rome has to be defeated. And we have to be the ones to do it, no holding back," went one such speech.

Judge Sproat found the evidence relating to the youth - he didn't look at the breadth of the Crown's overall case - left no doubt in his mind that at least five of the 10 adults had formed a terrorist group.

While the "extremely unsavoury" ringleader was singled out most frequently, the ruling also focused on the more capable No. 2, who allegedly formed a secretive splinter cell before he was spotted researching bomb-building and trying to acquire tonnes of fertilizer.

Judge Sproat was obliged to determine that a wider terrorist group existed before he could judge the youth. Still, his ruling rankled defence counsel. "The trial judge made improper findings of fact about the guilt of several accused that were not before him," Dennis Edney, the lawyer for one adult, said.

After the December training camp, the youth continued to associate with senior suspects, and even sought advice from them on whether stealing from Wal-Mart was permissible under Islam. Within weeks, he was caught shoplifting.

By then, he had also disabled a pinhole camera that security agencies had secretly installed to keep tabs on the group.

For these and other reasons, Judge Sproat concluded there was no reasonable doubt the youth participated in a terrorist group. He faces 10 years in prison, but his lawyers suggest a stiff sentence is unlikely.

Sentencing is being delayed pending a defence motion to be heard in December.

The ruling "certainly affirms the offence of participating in terrorism is quite broad," Prof. Roach said.

When Canada's Parliament framed the antiterrorism law after the Sept. 11 U.S. attacks, he said, fears about terrorist cells were obviously running high.

In the future, appeal courts may have to grapple with the law's reach. "Is it unconstitutional to punish and label someone as a terrorist, if they don't know the specifics?" he asked.

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