The VIA passenger train trial has been a tortuous one. The two terrorists, Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier were found guilty on eight of nine charges back in March of this year. The plot was disrupted two years previously: that is how long it takes terrorist cases to come to trial. Actually, this was very fast: the first case under the Anti-Terrorism Act, Momin Khawaja’s involvement in a UK fertiliser bomb plot in 2004, took four years.
Despite the guilty verdict delivered by a jury of their peers (I doubt if Esseghaier saw them as peers – more on this later), the defence strangely put forward a motion for fitness after the initial verdict, arguing that one of the two terrorists (Esseghaier) was mentally ill. After a variety of assessments, somewhat contradictory in nature, the judge ignored the possible evidence of mental illness and sentenced both men to life in prison today (September 23).
This is an important decision and entirely justified, as I shall attempt to show in this short piece. Judge Michael Code “found both men have not renounced their extremists beliefs, have not expressed remorse and present questionable prospects for rehabilitation” (click here for the entire National Post article). Kudos to the judge.
I understand the need to determine fitness to stand trial and to serve time in prison. People with clear mental illness may not have the ability to conceive of what they are doing (lack of mens rea) and require medical and psychological intervention. Prisons are probably not the best place to get that help.
But Esseghaier is not necessarily insane. I am not a psychiatrist and am not qualified to judge whether he is indeed schizophrenic as one assessor concluded. I do believe, however, that he is heavily radicalised and what may appear to a lay person, or even a medical professional, as mental illness is actually just a belief in a violent ideology. During the trial, Esseghaier’s statements and outbursts provided clear evidence of his worldview. In my experience, violent extremists influenced by the “single narrative” propagated by Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other groups are convinced that Islam is under attack from its enemies (largely the West) and they have a divinely sanctioned duty to defend their faith and their community. These people see themselves as the only true Muslims and will vocally reject any compromise or dialogue (Al Qaeda founder Abdallah Azzam famous said “No negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues: jihad and the rifle alone”). They see others, non-Muslim and Muslim, as inferior beings.
People as extremely radical as Esseghaier are poor candidates for rehabilitation, as Judge Code noted. These terrorists are not ordinary criminals and will likely not respond to the same programmes as everyday inmates. They will also likely hold to their beliefs for a very long time and hence will remain a threat to this country for a very long time. Qualified intervenors should of course try to get through to them but these efforts will likely be carried out in vain.
A life sentence is the right decision in this case. Hats off to CSIS and the RCMP in their investigations and to the Court for bringing down the right verdict. Canada and Canadians are a little safer tonight.