Thursday, March 27, 2008

Toronto Terror: Trial by Media?

Trial for Toronto 18 Begins

The trial for the 18 individuals charged for a summer 2006 bomb plot targeting Parliament Hill and the Toronto Stock Exchange, amongst other targets, formally got underway today.

Of course, some insist that was has unfolded since the 2 June, 2006 arrest has been a "trial by media".

On that note, it becomes very interesting to notice that between Canada's two preeminent media outlets, one seems intent to play the role of the prosecution, by focusing on the case laid against the Toronto 18, while the other seems intent on playing the role of the defence.

This is quite unfortunate. For Canadians to fully understand the trial of the Toronto 18 and the key issues of law, order, and civil liberties underlaying such a case, they need to understand both cases.

So, first, from the prosecution:

Crown lawyers expect to present evidence against the Toronto-area terror suspects that show some of the accused planned to commit attacks more deadly than the London subway bombings, according to documents filed in court containing anticipated evidence.

New details contained in the Crown factum that was filed at the trial of the only remaining youth charged allege prosecutors have audio tapes and video tape evidence of some of the suspects plotting several explosions.

The factum contains transcripts of alleged conversations between suspects, including one where one of the accused speaks about the group's violent ambitions.

"They're probably expecting what happened in London or something," the man is quoted as saying. "... Some bombing in a subway kills 10 people and everybody gets deported.

"We're not doing that. ... So our thing it's, it's much, much greater on a scale ... you do it once and you make sure they can never recover again."

The July 2005 bombings in London, carried out by four suicide bombers, claimed the lives of 52 commuters.

One video allegedly shows the Toronto-area suspects at a wooded area in rural Ontario. A passionate speaker is heard saying the men have to "wage war against Rome" -- the Western powers including Canada, the United States, Britain and France.

"Our mission's greater, whether we get arrested, whether we get killed .... Rome has to be defeated. And we have to be the ones that do it," the speaker allegedly says.

The Crown alleges the accused attended two so-called training camps -- one near the town of Washago and the other at the Rockwood Conservation Area near Guelph. The suspects are accused of taking part in military-style exercises in camouflage gear and firearms training with a 9-mm firearm.

The group is accused of planning to storm the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, taking politicians (including the prime minister) hostage and beheading them.

The Crown's filing also alleges that the men planned to construct a radio frequency remote-controlled detonator.

None of these allegations have been proven or tested in court.

The 18 suspects of the alleged al Qaeda-inspired cell were arrested in July 2006. Fourteen men, four of whom are free on bail, are charged with various terrorism-related offences.

Four teens were initially charged, however, charges against three of the youths have been stayed.

The Crown is asking the judge to impose a publication ban to prevent the media from linking evidence at the trial to any of the other adult suspects by name, saying the evidence is "prejudicial" and could destroy any chances of the other suspects getting a fair trial.

The youth's trial has begun with numerous pretrial motions. Evidence is not expected to be heard until mid-to-late May.

Lawyers have said the trials for the adults could be months or even years away.
According to the factum filed today, prosecutors have audio and video evidence detailing the planning sessions for the attack. They allude directly to the London 7/7 Tube bombings, planning to eclipse them in the public mind.

The prosecution also alleges that the accused trained at two terrorist training camps -- one near Washago, Ontario, and the other near Guelph.

Although CTV does recognize that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, although their story contains little mention of the defence council's claims.

And on that note, now for the defence:

A defence lawyer in the alleged Toronto-area bomb plot case filed a court document Wednesday attacking the Crown's case as fanciful and based largely on the unsubstantiated allegations of an unreliable police informant.

The defence factum, a summary of the case that lawyers will argue during the trial, takes on some of the more dramatic allegations made in Crown documents submitted on Tuesday.

The factum was filed on behalf of one of the adult accused whose case has yet to go to trial.

The trial began this week of another defendant, who was 18 at the time of his arrest and cannot be named under the terms of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The factum says the defence lawyer will show that a so-called "jihadist" training camp run by some of the accused was nothing more than a screening exercise for possible recruits to Islamic militancy, and few of the participants in training at the camp — near the southern Ontario town of Orillia — knew what they were involved in.

Two of the other defendants who have yet to go on trial ran the camp, the factum says, and concealed its purpose from other participants. Trainees took part in winter camping activities but were so ill-equipped for the cold weather that they spent much of their time in a nearby Tim Hortons coffee shop.

Informant brought bullets: lawyer

The document acknowledges that some firearms training took place, but it alleges that the only person to bring live ammunition to the camp was a police informant. That same informant was the person who actually conducted the gun exercises, the factum says.

In addition, the document alleges that the only source of information about what was happening at the Orillia camp was the police informant. There was no "real time" police surveillance, it says.

Responding to transcripts of audio tapes of a police wiretap that the Crown claims were "damning and disturbing" proof of a militant Islamist bomb plot, the factum filed Wednesday said the defendant was not present at the time that other accused were talking about attacking Parliament and the headquarters of CSIS and the CBC.

The factum concludes with an argument against the Crown's request for a publication ban on the names of the defendants, or any evidence that might help identify them.

The document says police and government officials have already taken part in "orgiastic and self congratulatory press gathering[s] … during which evermore private details and 'investigative gossip' were revealed to inflame and misinform the public."

No witnesses until May

"Restricting the publication of evidence at a trial is the sharp edge of a slippery slope," the factum states, "which … results in 'Star Chamber' or military commission [-style] trials where the public's right to know is supplanted by the government desire to withhold."

The document says the defendant would suffer unduly from a publication ban because he wouldn't be disassociated from some of the worst allegations being made in the case.

In all, 18 suspects were originally charged with offences related to supporting terrorism, but three have had charges against them stayed.

None of the evidence detailed in the Crown review has been tested in court.

Although the trial officially began Tuesday, the first witnesses are not expected to be called until May 27.
In short, the factum filed on behalf of this particular defendant concedes that there was, in fact, a terrorist training camp in Ontario. However, it insists that only two of the accused were aware of the true purpose of the camp, and rest were unfortunate dupes.

Instead of participating in training, the defence insists, the defendant was merely being screened for suitability for Islamic militancy.

Moreover, the defence denies that there are any audio or video recordings incriminating the accused, and that the only evidence the crown can offer is the testimony of the undercover officer.

The defence also insists that a publication ban would harm his client by not allowing him to be disassociated from the alleged details of the case. But as the Youth Criminal Justice Act forbids identifying the defendant, it's important to note that his name hasn't been associated with the alleged details of the case in the first place.

With national security -- and the means by which we preserve it -- very much at stake in these proceedings, it's very important for Canadians to understand this case. One-sided representations of the arguments in this case don't serve this purpose, and should be considered alarming to Canadians.

That being said, if the Toronto 18 truly are being tried in the media, it's at least comforting that both sides at least are being represented, even if only separately.

It may be up to the Canadian people to play the role of the judge and jury. The only question is: how many will take the time to learn the whole story?

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