The Criminal Code of Canada "is not a holy book" and does not apply to him, Chiheb Esseghaier said Wednesday, offering the first glimpse into the mind of the Montreal man accused of plotting an al-Qaeda-linked attack on a Via Rail train.
"Only the Creator is perfect," Mr. Esseghaier, a stocky figure with a thick beard and glasses, said calmly at the end of his 10-minute court appearance at Old City Hall in downtown Toronto.
Mr. Esseghaier, one of two accused in the terror plot, was soft-spoken and courteous throughout the hearing, and when offered the services of an Arabic-speaking interpreter, he politely declined.
Mr. Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, are accused of plotting to derail a Via passenger train on a rail line somewhere between New York and Toronto. Authorities have not specified how the train might have been attacked, and where.
It is also not clear how the two became acquainted. Mr. Esseghaier, a native of Tunisia, came to Canada only five years ago and until recently was working toward a PhD, studying optical and electrochemical biosensors in Montreal. Meanwhile, Mr. Jaser had lived in Toronto since his teens and spent much of the past decade working as a driver and for family businesses.
The pair were arrested Monday after police received a tip from the Muslim community.
At court Wednesday, Mr. Esseghaier did not appear with a lawyer and was represented by a duty counsel. No publication ban on any of the proceedings was requested.
When addressed, Mr. Esseghaier said, "I wish to have one comment," to which Justice of the Peace Susan Hilton responded with a caution to "be careful what you say."
She warned him that anything he said in court could be used as evidence against him. He appeared unperturbed.
Standing in the glass-walled prisoner's box in the cramped basement courtroom, where every seat was taken, Mr. Esseghaier told the court why he does not recognize Canada's Criminal Code.
"First of all, my comment is the following because all of those conclusions was taken out based on Criminal Code," he said.
"All of us we know that this Criminal Code is not holy book, it's just written by set of creations and the creations – they're not perfect because only the Creator is perfect so if we are basing our judgment … we cannot rely on the conclusions taken out from these judgments."
The justice of the peace thanked him for his remarks but added that "it doesn't matter in this court. … You save that for another court."
Mr. Esseghaier was ordered detained in custody, and his case put over until next month. He will appear by video link at the same time and place as his co-accused, Mr. Jaser.
Mr. Esseghaier moved to Sherbrooke, Que., in 2008 to work as a graduate researcher at the University of Sherbrooke. In 2010, he began research on biosensors as a doctoral student at the Institut national de la reserche scientifique at the University of Quebec. According to acquaintances, Mr. Esseghaier demanded a prayer room at the institute in Montreal, and bragged about tearing down posters he found offensive.
Recently, he appeared to have been homeless, with the charge sheet describing him as having "no fixed address."
Mr. Esseghaier did not appear to have any family or friends attend his hearing, unlike his co-accused, Mr. Jaser.
And whereas acquaintances called Mr. Esseghaier "paranoid" and "stubborn," his co-accused was described as a "very good guy" who spent much of his time working with people with disabilities.
Mr. Jaser, a Palestinian, came to Canada as a teen. From 2000 to 2003, he worked full-time as a driver at AAA Taxi and Limo in Markham, providing accessible transit services for people with disabilities. Both Mr. Jaser and his father worked at the company, their former boss, Benny Banipal, said.
"He was a very good employee," Mr. Banipal said. "In three years, I never got complaints from customers."
He said that off-duty, Mr. Jaser was "a very lovely, jolly guy. He was making jokes all day long."
He also added that Mr. Jaser did not appear to be particularly religious at that time.
Mr. Banipal is not sure where Mr. Jaser went to work after AAA Taxi and Limo was sold in 2003, but from 2008 to 2011, he was listed as director of Nexus Executive Limousine Services, a private transportation company.
Last year, he worked for about 10 months as a school bus driver at Aplus School Services, driving students to and from school in the special-education program at Unionville High School.
"We had no problems with him whatsoever when he was here," the company's president, Dib Ajram, said in an interview. "We checked his background, criminal record, vulnerable sector check, and they all came clean," he said. A vulnerable sector check is performed by local police in cases where employees are expected to work directly with children, the elderly, or persons with disabilities.
Mr. Ajram said that Mr. Jaser left the company after nearly a year, and where he went after that is unclear.
Mr. Jaser was a competent employee, he said. "Nobody had anything against him at that time."