July 17, 2006

Canadian terror suspects face long road to trial

By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - A group of men alleged to be part of an
al Qaeda-inspired terror cell are winding their way through
Canada's court system in the first true test of Canada's
anti-terror laws.

Zakaria Amara -- believed to be one of the leaders of a
suspected plot to attack Canadian landmarks -- was in court on
Monday in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, where fifteen of the
17 suspects have been undergoing bail hearings.

Two were already in custody on weapons charges ahead of the
dramatic arrests in early June, which shocked Canadians not
used to worrying about attacks on their home soil.

The arrests have reignited oft-heard criticism from the
United States about Canada's border security and immigration
policies, and have put pressure on Ottawa to show it can
prosecute home-grown cells that might pose a threat to other

"You do not want to be the weak link in an international
chain of lawful dealing with terrorism offenses," said Martin
Rudner, a terrorism expert at Carleton University.

Rudner said Canada's reputation has taken a hit from its
past record with such issues, including the failure to convict
the main suspects in the 1985 bombing of an Air India airliner
that killed 329 people during a flight from Canada to India.

The Brampton suspects, who range in age from their
mid-teens to early 40s, have been charged with offenses under
the Anti-Terrorism Act, largely untested since it was passed in
the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The act gives authorities the power to make preventive
arrests of suspects and limit the amount of evidence shown to
the accused. It is now under a three-year mandatory review.


The accused have appeared shackled in front of tearful
family members, friends and a media presence rarely seen at
court hearings.

"This is comparable to a complex murder trial," Michael
Block, lawyer for one of the accused, told reporters last week,
noting it could be two years before the case gets to trial.

So far, two of the younger suspects have been denied
release, while one has been granted bail.

Meanwhile, media lawyers are in the process of trying to
knock down a publication ban that prevents reporting on
evidence from pre-trial court hearings.

But despite the ban, details have dribbled into the public
sphere through a combination of leaked documents, interviews
with people connected to the case, and statements by lawyers
made outside the court, where the ban does not apply.

The picture that has emerged has been that of a group that
allegedly harbored ambitions of launching major attacks on
Canadian targets -- but was thoroughly infiltrated by police.

Toronto Muslim Mubin Shaikh stepped forward this week and
admitted he acted as a government spy to infiltrate the group,
whom he referred to as "fruitcakes" who nevertheless could have
caused great damage.

The suspects have been largely isolated from other
prisoners and lawyers have at times complained of the tight
restrictions on their clients, particularly the six teenagers.

"There are 24 hours in the day, and 168 hours in the week,
and that's a lot of time to spend sitting alone," said Paul
Burstein, who represents one the younger suspects.

"He can only have one book in his cell at a time, so if he
wants to have book to read, he can't have the Koran to pray."

According to leaked documents, police say members of the
group discussed bomb attacks on various economic and security
targets, while at least one talked of storming Parliament and
taking legislators hostage to try to force the government to
withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

One report said prosecutors allege one of the group had
signed up for flight school as part of a plan to use aircraft
in an attack.

Police eventually stepped in and arrested the group after
members allegedly attempted to buy three tonnes of ammonium
nitrate, a bomb-making ingredient used in the 1995 Oklahoma
City blast that killed 168 people.