The lawyer for one of the two men charged in the alleged conspiracy to derail a Via Rail passenger train questioned why they were arrested when police said there was no imminent danger.
John Norris, the lawyer for Raed Jaser, noted that his client was taken into custody Monday in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing and amid a parliamentary debate on a new federal anti-terrorism law.
“The timing of the arrest is a bit of a mystery and certainly I would like to hear the RCMP’s explanation for that. They have been very clear that there is no risk of public safety and it is surprising to say the least that this arrest would be made now, close on the heels of what happened in Boston and timed perfectly with what was happening in the House of Commons yesterday,” Mr. Norris said.
“I don’t know what their purposes were but their timing was notable to say the least.”
Mr. Norris made his comments after his client and a co-accused were in court Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government staunchly denied any involvement in the conspiracy, which RCMP said was guided by al-Qaeda operatives based in Iran.
In Toronto, the 35-year-old Mr. Jaser appeared before an Ontario Court justice of the peace at the Old City Hall courthouse.
According to their charge sheet, Mr. Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, are being charged with conspiracy to commit murder, participating in the activities of a terrorist group and conspiracy to interfere with transportation facilities.
Those alleged offences took place between April and September of last year.
Mr. Esseghaier also was charged with one count of having directed a person to carry out a terrorist activity and terrorist activities from September to Feb. 14 of this year, according to the court document.
“The accusations are very serious … my client is in a state of shock and disbelief that this is happening to him,” Mr. Norris told reporters.
The court appearance lasted about five minutes and Mr. Jaser, heavily bearded and wearing a tight-fitting head covering, told the justice of the peace that “it’s quite clear” when he was asked whether he understood the proceedings.
Mr. Jaser’s parents were in attendance during the brief court appearance. “I’m here to support my son … Let the police do their job,” his father, Mohammed Jaser, told reporters.
Mr. Norris said his client is a permanent resident who who has lived in Canada for 20 years. “They’re well settled in Canada.”
Because of the type of charges he is facing, Mr. Jaser’s bail application has to be heard in Superior Court so he was remanded in custody. His next court date was set for May 23. “He intends to defend himself vigorously."
The charge sheet against the two men said Mr. Jaser lived at an address on Cherokee Boulevard in North York where the RCMP conducted a search warrant Monday. Mr. Esseghaier is a graduate student in Montreal but the court document said he had no fixed address.
Scores of police officers with rifles and search dogs surrounded a Toronto business called North York Moving and Storage on Monday, where Mr. Jaser is believed to have been employed, said Matt Sigman, a truck serviceman who works next door. Employees of the industrial strip mall said they were told to stay put for about two hours until police took a man with a beard into custody, said co-worker John Comes.
“He was inside the building. [Police] pulled him out and then they walked him to a black SUV.”
Mr. Jaser was a director of Nexus Executive Limousine Services Inc., which was incorporated in 2008 and dissolved for non-compliance in 2011 after failing to file annual documents for three years, according to information from Industry Canada.
The business’s registered office address was a house on Lehman Crescent in Markham, Ont. Property records show that Mohammed and Sabah Jaser bought the house in 2000. After mortgage payments were defaulted on, the lender sold it to another family in 2009.
The second suspect in the plot, Mr. Esseghaier, had been arrested while he lunched Monday at a McDonald’s restaurant at the Via Rail Central Station in downtown Montreal.
He had been flown to a Toronto-area detention centre Monday but was ferried back to Montreal because the warrant for his removal to Ontario had not been authorized by a Quebec judge. He was expected to be sent back to Toronto Tuesday after a brief appearance at the Montreal courthouse.
Appearing handcuffed and wearing a black and blue parka, the former doctoral student made a point of protesting his innocence. "These conclusions are being reached based on facts that are nothing but words and appearances," Mr. Esseghaier said before Judge Pierre E. Labelle cut him off.
"This is an initial appearance, not a time to consider the facts of your case," the judge said before Mr. Esseghaier was led away.
Richard Roy, a lawyer who represented the federal government at the hearing, said Mr. Esseghaier was offered the services of a court-appointed lawyer but declined.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the allegations that al-Qaeda facilitators in his country were involved “ridiculous” and denied that his country had any role in the plot.
"Al-Qaeda in Iran, it is a sheer lie, a scandalous lie that surprised me," Mr. Salehi told reporters in Tehran, according to the Fars news agency.
The Islamic Republic News Agency added that Mr. Salehi called the accusations laughable.
“He said this is the funniest thing he has heard during his 64 years of life,” IRNA reported.
The two suspects came to the attention of the police following a tip from a Toronto imam.
The imam alerted authorities more than a year ago about a person he regarded as an extremist who was corrupting youth in his community.
In Montreal, some people said Mr. Esseghaier stood out.
The Tunisian-born Mr. Esseghaier is a PhD student who was doing research on biosensors at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique.
An acquaintance said Mr. Esseghaier wore a full beard, a sign of his religious devotion, even before the Tunisian revolution of January, 2011, which was considered a bold move because it was widely assumed that the regime of then Zine El Abidine Ben Ali kept an eye on expatriates.
Another Tunisian living in Montreal, Faouzi Bellili, recalled that Mr. Esseghaier was angry at the Canadian tax system.
Bellili told The Gazette that he spoke to Mr. Esseghaier outside a mosque a year and a half ago.
“He was saying things like, ‘When you pay taxes here, you’re only helping Canadians,’ and I didn’t really understand and wanted to say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave the country’,” Bellili told The Gazette in a telephone interview. “I realized he had a very different vision and that I was wasting my time talking to him.”
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was asked by reporters Tuesday whether the arrests in Canada were precipitated by the attack on the Boston Marathon.
“I don’t know of any connection between the two,” Mr. Nicholson said. “As I’ve indicated a number of times over the years that terrorism is an ongoing threat to this country and we have to take steps. And again this is something we all have to be vigilant in. But I know of no connection.”
With reports from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Renata D'Aliesio, Jill Mahoney, Rick Cash and Katrina Pyne in Toronto.