Thursday, November 05, 2009

Guilty Pleas and the “Toronto 18”

Questioning Canada’s Terror Convictions

by Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
BASICS #16 (Nov / Dec 2009)

Last month, twenty-four-year-old Zakaria Amara pled guilty to terrorism charges arising from the 2006 allegations that a radical “homegrown” Islamic terrorist cell was plotting large-scale terrorist attacks in Ontario, including bombing the Toronto Stock Exchange and storming Parliament.

Much of the investigation, charges and legal proceedings in the case have been facilitated through the overreaching powers granted under Canada’s Anti-Terror legislation, while the case itself is seen as a major test of these anti-terror laws. Coincidentally the brutal 2006 commando-style raids (involving over 400 heavily armed police and security forces) that ended with the arrest of 13 men and 5 teenagers (dubbed the “Toronto 18”) took place on the eve of a parliamentary vote on whether or not to extend the then soon to expire anti-terrorism laws.

This legislation was also crucial to the nonsensical conviction last year of one of the youth in the case - Nishanthan Yogakrishnan (who was 17 at the time of his arrest). While the presiding judge acknowledged that Yogakrishnan may not have known of any terrorist plot, he was nonetheless convicted of participating in activities (shoplifting) that facilitated that plot!
As of the writing of this article, 7 of the original 18 men and teenagers have had their charges dropped while six men are still awaiting trial (two of whom are being inhumanely held in solitary confinement). Within the last year and following Yogakrishnan’s conviction, 4 other men (all in their 20s) have plead guilty to knowingly participating in a terrorist group and/or intending to cause an explosion for the benefit of a terrorist group.

The response to the five convictions from security officials, media commentators and the wider public has been to rebuke those who expressed doubts about the existence of the terror cell or a viable terror plot. They say that the guilty pleas speak for themselves, and prove that Canada’s Anti-terrorism legislation is “protecting the safety and security of Canadians”. They also ridiculed those community members who rejected the fear-mongering created from the arrests or who advocated for the protection of the civil liberties of the accused. Canada’s Spy chief, Richard Fadden chastised, “Many … have come to see the fight against terrorism by the government as an overreaction or as an assault on liberty…Terrorism is the ultimate attack on liberties”.

Yet the guilty pleas are not in themselves evidence of guilt. Every conviction to date hinges on allegations that have never been tested in court– most significantly the concreteness of a terrorist plot or the existence of an actual terrorist cell. The prosecution will test their evidence only when the remaining six accused have had their trials (and by some accounts most of these men are only charged with participating in camping expeditions characterized as “terror training camps” by the prosecution, yet characterized as a “religious recreational retreats” by the prosecution’s own witness!)

The prosecution must also explain the extent of the role played by at least two highly-paid police moles (collectively compensated 4.5 million dollars) brought in only after months of security surveillance had reached an impasse. Were these provocateurs? It has already been revealed in pre-trial testimony that these infiltrators provided the accused money, expertise, training, bomb material and possibly the plot idea itself.

Other reasons for pleading guilty could be based on fear of getting full justice after the outrageous ruling against Nishanthan Yogakrishnan, combined with complaints of inadequate funding for their defense through the defective legal aid program and the fear of losing credit for the three years of pre-trial detention already endured. Incidentally, a bill is close to being passed that will prevent judges from granting twice the time already served to be subtracted from final conviction sentences.

The reality is that the public has limited information about “Canada’s largest terrorism trial” because many of the details have been withheld due to a publication ban. Even the defense counsel has been denied some critical information related to evidence (kept “secret” on the grounds of national security).

The reality is also that both CSIS and the RCMP have a history criminal behavior and routinely and maliciously abuse their power in service of the Canadian state. One obvious political payoff from successful convictions in the “Toronto 11” will be justification for expanding state power (in the maintenance of oppressive legislation) that can then be used to further repress and criminalize dissent within state borders.

Most recently two Muslim men (Adil Charkaoui and Abousifian Abdelrazik) accused of terrorism, harassed and abused by Canada’s investigative agencies and imprisoned or banished by the Canadian state have been cleared of all charges. It only took six traumatic years to get to that point – along with nonstop solidarity and public civil rights campaigns from a group of dedicated people who happened to be skeptical.