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Courts now down to 7 in 'Toronto 18' case Add to ...

The so-called "Toronto 18" conspiracy case now hangs on only seven suspects, as a series of recent guilty pleas has winnowed the pool down to its key accused.

While more pleas are possible ahead of this winter's much-anticipated trial, the small fry have mostly been dealt with - either through dismissals or convictions. Yesterday, a midlevel suspect pleaded guilty in a North Toronto court to his role in plotting bombings in downtown Toronto.

Saad Gaya was an 18-year-old McMaster University student when he was caught boxing packages marked "ammonium nitrate." He described himself as a gopher helping the scheme's masterminds toward an overarching goal.

The point? "To fix the situation right now, you know, in Afghanistan and stuff," he told police according to now-public transcript of his post-arrest interview.

The fertilizer-based bombs were to send a message to "the Canadians there … tell them it's not their job, they should leave."

It was a stark reversal for Mr. Gaya - whom activists once portrayed as a wrongly accused victim of "Islamophobia" - and the latest in a series of admissions from young extremists rounded up by RCMP-led police in June, 2006.

The plea brings to four the number of convictions in the Toronto 18 case. Seven suspects had their charges stayed or were released on peace bonds after the arrests.

Of the remaining accused, three or four could still face possible life sentences. But the others - if convicted - have already largely paid their debt to society, judging from past sentences.

For example, Mr. Gaya, now 21, is likely in line for a sentence nominally in the neighbourhood of 14 years - but could be paroled in a year or two. This is due to the counterintuitive calculus of Canada's correctional system.

The time-consuming pretrial legal battles so far, coupled with Canada's customary two-for-one credit for "dead time" in jail, means most remaining suspects have already served the equivalent of a seven-year penitentiary term. On top of that, correctional officials must parole the vast majority of suspects at 2/3 of their sentence.

Police cast a wide dragnet in their June, 2006, roundups - too large, some observers suggest - but the bulk of their energies were focused on a few key actors. One core conspiracy involves a weeklong winter terrorist training camp. Another involved a splinter cell that plotted exploding truck-bombs in downtown Toronto.

Mr. Gaya, born in Montreal to parents from Karachi, Pakistan, was an unsophisticated teenager at the time of his arrest. He freely chatted with police after being taken into custody.

"I was told [it was]survival camp training … everybody was freezing," he said of the training camp.

He described how one suspect once woke him up by brandishing an 9-millimetre handgun. "Um, I'm not personally like amazing with weapons," he said. "I don't know too much."

More disturbing is his role in the bomb plot.

Mr. Gaya was found with a knapsack filled with $9,000 cash and spotted unloading boxes of fertilizer from the back of a truck - delivered to him as part of a police sting.

"I knew there was a plan to like, do something, but … like, I didn't know where, uh, exactly," Mr. Gaya told police. He said that "I was told to have faith in the highest level."

Mr. Gaya, who was wearing a "Student Farmers" T-shirt to allay suspicion at the time of his arrest, wore a dark suit Monday as he pleaded guilty. He will be sentenced Jan. 6.

Trial for the remaining accused is to begin around that time.

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