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Via Rail train terror plotters sentenced to life in prison

Chiheb Esseghaier, one of two men found guilty of terrorism charges, is led off a plane by an RCMP officer at Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto on April 23, 2013.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Two men found guilty of terrorism charges after being accused of plotting to derail a passenger train were sentenced to life in prison Wednesday as a Toronto judge found neither of them had expressed remorse for their offences.

Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier were found guilty in March on a total of eight charges between them.

Justice Michael Code, the Toronto judge who presided over their trial earlier this year, found both men have not renounced their extremist beliefs, have not accepted responsibility for their offences and present questionable prospects for rehabilitation.

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"I am satisfied that life imprisonment is the appropriate sentence," he said, noting that the men would receive some credit for time already spent in custody. Both men aren't eligible for parole until 2023.

Mr. Jaser shook his head, closed his eyes at one point and held his face in one hand after his sentence was delivered.

Mr. Esseghaier appeared nonchalant, crossing his arms and leaning back in the prisoner's box as Justice Code read out his 53-page sentencing decision.

"The life sentence doesn't have any meaning for me," the self-represented Mr. Esseghaier told Justice Code after his sentence was delivered.

Crown lawyers had asked for life sentences for both men and expressed their satisfaction with Justice Code's decision.

"There was one message that was made loud and clear today," Crown prosecutor Croft Michaelson said. "That message is if you commit terrorist offences in Canada, with the intention of causing indiscriminate killing, you're going to pay a very heavy price."

Mr. Jaser's lawyer said he was disappointed with the outcome of the case and already had instructions to appeal both Mr. Jaser's conviction and sentence.

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"We do view it as excessive," John Norris said of the sentence, adding that Mr. Jaser was "somewhat stunned" by Wednesday's developments.

"He is a resilient man. He is trying to remain positive."

Mr. Jaser's lawyer had asked for a sentence of five-and-a-half years and argued mitigating factors in his client's case included entrapment, segregation during pretrial custody and drug addiction. Justice Code rejected those arguments in delivering his sentence.

"My overall impressions of Mr. Jaser are that he is intelligent, devious and untrustworthy," Justice Code said. "He has not yet accepted responsibility for the offences, not yet expressed remorse, not yet renounced his violent and racist beliefs."

In Mr. Esseghaier's case, a court-appointed lawyer who was ordered to assist the Tunisian national through the legal process had asked Justice Code to postpone sentencing until it could be determined if Mr. Esseghaier could be hospitalized and treated for a mental illness.

Justice Code refused and said there was "no causal link" between Mr. Esseghaier's current mental state and his behaviour at the time of the offences.

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"The evidence is overwhelming that he was not delusional or psychotic at the time of the offence," Justice Code said. "It is unprecedented to adjourn a sentencing hearing indefinitely to await treatment."

Two psychiatrists who assessed Mr. Esseghaier's mental state over the course of his sentencing hearing found that he likely suffers from a mental illness. But the second psychiatrist found that Mr. Esseghaier was still fit to be sentenced for his crimes.

Mr. Esseghaier is deeply religious and has consistently maintained his desire to be judged under the Koran.

He has often gone on rambling rants in the courtroom and even prayed in the prisoner's dock, but his mental state only became an issue in the case after the psychiatric assessments – which he vehemently disagreed with.

In one court session, Esseghaier even spat at lawyers and threw a cup of water across a courtroom after the second psychiatrist who assessed him testified that he likely suffers from schizophrenia.

Code said it was "unnecessary to arrive at any firm conclusions regarding Esseghaier's alleged mental illness." But he did find that Esseghaier was "completely remorseless."

The lawyer who assisted Esseghaier said the way in which Code dealt with the evidence of mental illness in the case would be "an issue" if the matter proceeded to an appeal.

During their trial, court heard that an undercover FBI agent gained Mr. Jaser and Mr. Esseghaier's trust and surreptitiously recorded their conversations, which made up the bulk of the evidence in the case.

The two were recorded speaking about alleged terror plots they would conduct in retaliation for Canada's military actions in Muslim countries, including the derailment of a Via Rail train travelling between New York and Toronto.

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