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Another suspect in so-called 'Toronto 18' pleads guilty

Another suspect in the so-called 'Toronto 18' conspiracy has pleaded guilty in a scheme to blow up government targets in downtown Toronto.

It is the third such plea in recent weeks ahead of this winter's much anticipated trial, as lawyers seek to sort out the main accused from the peripheral players.

Saad Gaya, a 21-year old, admitted Monday that he was part of an al-Qaeda-inspired plot to build fertilizer-based truck bombs and explode them in downtown Toronto.

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Specifically, Mr. Gaya pleaded guilty to being part of a conspiracy to be part of a terrorist offence. He was arrested unloading boxes marked "ammonium nitrate" from the back of a truck in June 2006, as hundreds of police swept across the Toronto area to round up a group of young extremists.

The shipment of three tonnes of fertilizer three years ago was actually an RCMP sting operation, led by one of two police agents who infiltrated the group. (A distinct agent had infiltrated a makeshift training camp months prior to the bomb-conspiracy sting.) A year and a half ago, Mr. Gaya emerged as a cause celebre around the time of one of his bail hearings. He was portrayed at sympathetic rallies, on activist Web sites and in the some press coverage as a Muslim youth who had been arrested on trumped up charges.

But on Monday Mr. Gaya admitted his role was analogous to that of his friend and co-accused Saad Khalid, who was arrested at the same warehouse and caught unloading the same bags of fertilizer from the back of a truck.

Mr. Khalid was sentenced to 14 years earlier this month after pleading guilty to his role in the scheme. However, for a variety of factors inherent to Canada's correctional system, it's anticipated he'll spend only two to three more years in jail.

In pleading out last month, Mr. Khalid said he was a bomb-plot helper, not a mastermind, and that he wasn't privy to specific details of the scheme - including the locations of the alleged targets, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service offices in downtown Toronto, the nearby Toronto Stock Exchange and an unspecified Canadian Forces base along Highway 401.

Mr. Khalid did, however, say he wanted to blow up targets in downtown Toronto, describing himself as a misguided Muslim who wanted to force Canadian Forces soldiers from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

In pleading out today, Mr. Gaya may be seeking a similar sentence to Mr. Khalid, who has already completed most of his jail time.

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Mr. Gaya wore a dark suit, beard and glasses as he pleaded guilty in a soft-spoken voice. The gallery was packed with his family, who had championed his innocence for years, but who had nothing to say after Monday's hearing.

Outside court, Mr. Gaya's lawyer, Paul Slansky said his client will likely get less than 14 years given he was arguably less culpable than his friend, Mr. Khalid.

"To some extent, he was duped," said Mr. Slansky, explaining Mr. Gaya was not privy to the mechanics of the bomb plot. He added his client "asked for assurances there would not be harm to people" from ringleaders.

Other potential mitigating factors, the lawyer said, include that Mr. Gaya expressed remorse to police in a lengthy videotaped interview after he was caught.

Mr. Slansky also pointed out his client "served over three years in custody and one of them was in isolation" - factors which should eat up most of his penitentiary term.

Sentencing arguments are scheduled for late December with a verdict on January 6.

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At the front end of a sentence, Canadian courts generally credit prisoners two-for-one for the time they spent in pretrial custody.

Toward the end of a sentence, the federal correctional system obliges that nearly all prisoners be released at two thirds of their sentence.

All things told, Canada's correctional laws mean that many, if not most, of the remaining accused in the Toronto 18 conspiracy have already done most of their time should they be found guilty.

A flurry of defence bids to get the conspiracy charges tossed on technical grounds have failed. But the three-and-a-half years spent in arguments delayed bringing matters to trial, meaning that most accused will see a sizable reduction in their penitentiary terms, if convicted.

The pretrial custody credits mean that most of the accused will be understood to have served at least the equivalent of seven year sentence by the time matters come to trial this winter.

Only a handful of accused - particularly those accused of being the bombing masterminds - face life imprisonment. The rest face lesser charges, along the lines of participating in a terrorist scheme or being part of a terrorist group.

Seven accused in the Toronto 18 conspiracy had their charges stayed or were released on peace bonds. A youth peripheral to the scheme was found guilty and sentenced to time served last year.

A suspect who smuggled a handgun across the Canada-U.S. border for the group, Ali Dirie, is to be sentenced on Friday. He was already jailed when the core conspiracies were hatched.

With Mr. Gaya, Mr. Khalid, and Mr. Dirie having pleaded guilty in recent weeks, only seven adult accused are headed to trial at this point. More pleas are possible.

A publication ban prohibits identifying the co-accused.

Jury selection is anticipated to start in December.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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