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Convicted of five offences, Momin Khawaja became the first person in Canada to be found guilty of facilitating terrorist acts. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Convicted of five offences, Momin Khawaja became the first person in Canada to be found guilty of facilitating terrorist acts. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ontario court sends tough message on terrorism Add to ...

Ontario's highest court has shown that it was serious about curbing homegrown terrorism, dramatically increasing prison sentences for a collection of jihadists who were plotting terrorist attacks.

In a series of groundbreaking decisions Friday, the Ontario Court of Appeal sent two men to prison for life and hammered home a message that terrorism is very much alive on Canadian soil. It said that harsh sentences are vital to deter misguided individuals from throwing in their lot with terrorists.

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Ottawa terrorist Mohammed Momin Khawaja was one of those imprisoned for life, as well as being given a 24-year concurrent sentence, partly in recognition of his refusal to relinquish his diehard beliefs.

"He was obsessed with the cause, fanatic in his determination to establish Islamic dominance seemingly at any cost, and eager to assist in bringing about the destruction of Western culture and civilization," the judges said.

Saad Khalid, a member of the so-called Toronto 18 who masterminded a plot to bomb the CN Tower, CSIS headquarters and a military base, saw his 14-year sentenced elevated to 20 years. One of his confederates, Zakaria Amara, failed in a bid to have a life sentence imposed at his trial reduced.

"He knew full well that hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people would die or be gravely injured if everything went according to his plan," said Mr. Justice David Doherty, Mr. Justice Michael Moldaver and Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk. "Indeed, a strong argument can be made that widespread carnage was precisely the outcome that he intended."

A third member of the Toronto 18, Saad Gaya, saw his sentence raised from an equivalent of 12 years to 18 years. The court flatly rejected his plea for leniency based on his not having known in advance where he would be delivering a truckload of explosives.

"Like Khalid, the respondent played an essential role in a scheme which, if implemented, would have killed countless people and left the entire country changed very much for the worse," the judges said.

In two other rulings Friday, the court ordered the extradition of two Sri Lankan terror suspects to the United States. The men - Piratheepan Nadarajah and Suresh Sriskandarajah - face trial for allegedly assisting the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam to purchase surface-to-air missiles and AK-47s from an undercover police officer in Long Island, New York.

The judges rejected arguments that the charges against them were unconstitutional since the pair were unaware specifically which terrorist acts they were contributing to.

"Parliament had ample evidence before it, indicating that sophisticated terrorist operations depended on the existence and functioning of discrete units, each of which engaged in various acts intended to facilitate and culminate in the kind of mass murder that has become all too commonplace," the court said.

Arrested in 2004, Mr. Khawaja had spent five years in prison before he was given an additional 10½-year sentence. The Court of Appeal, which raised that to a life sentence, said that his trial judge seriously underestimated Mr. Khawaja's fanaticism as well as the role model he represented to future jihadists.

Even if the 25-year-old man had shown the slightest remorse or intention to change his ways - which he hasn't - rehabilitation would rank as a minor factor, the court said. It said that Mr. Khawaja was passionately committed to aiding violent jihad through his construction of a detonating device called the "hifidigimonster."

The court also rejected arguments that key sections of the federal anti-terrorism act should be found unconstitutional because they allow the Crown to furnish evidence of a defendant's motives.

While it is true that finding evidence of an individual's motives could potentially come into conflict with the Charter right to free expression, the court said that it is hardly news that terrorist acts are usually born of political, religious and ideological motivations.

"Consequently, motive will play a crucial role in the detection and prosecution of terrorist activities," it said.

University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach said that, while it was not surprising that the court upheld the religious and political motive clause, it ought to bear in mind the requirement has caused several prosecutions in Australia to founder. "It may not be the best policy," he said.

The Court of Appeal cautioned that, in deciding whom to investigate and searching for evidence of motives, authorities must take great care not to fall back on racial and religious stereotypes.

"This kind of state conduct is not only unacceptable, it is unconstitutional," it said. "There is, however, no evidence of any connection between these abuses and the motive clause."

It also emphasized that the promotion and facilitation of violence is the last thing the Charter of Rights was intended to shelter.

"Violent activity, even though it conveys a meaning, is excluded because violence is destructive of the very values that underlie the right to freedom of expression and that make this right so central to both individual fulfilment and the functioning of a free and democratic society," it said.

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