TORONTO (AP) — A man accused of plotting with al-Qaida members in Iran to derail a train in Canada gave a rambling statement in a Toronto court Wednesday and appeared to be saying he does not recognize its jurisdiction.
Law enforcement officials in the U.S. said the target was a train that runs between New York City and Canada. Canadian investigators say Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, received guidance from members of al-Qaida in Iran. Iranian government officials have said the government had nothing to do with the plot.
"My comment is the following because all of those conclusions were taken out based on criminal code and all of us know that this criminal code is not a holy book," Esseghaier said at the hearing Wednesday. "We cannot rely on the conclusions taken out from these judgments."
The judge told him to "save that for another court," and take the advice of his lawyers. He was given a May 23 court date.
Charges against the two men in Canada include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police — tipped off by an imam worried by the behavior of one of the suspects — said it was the first known attack planned by al-Qaida in Canada. The two could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
In a brief court appearance in Montreal on Tuesday, Esseghaier declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. He made a brief statement in French in which he rejected the allegations against him.
Esseghaier, who was arrested Monday afternoon at a McDonald's restaurant in the train station, was later flown to Toronto for Wednesday's appearance in the city where his trial will take place.
Jaser also appeared in court Tuesday in Toronto and also did not enter a plea. He was given a new court date of May 23. The court granted a request by his lawyer, John Norris, for a publication ban on future evidence and testimony.
The case has raised questions about the extent of Shiite-led Iran's relationship with al-Qaida, a predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network. It also renewed attention on Iran's complicated history with the terror group, which ranges from outright hostility to alliances of convenience and even overtures by Tehran to assist Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Law officials in New York with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press the attack was to take place on the Canadian side of the border. They are not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Jaser's lawyer said on Tuesday that his client questioned the timing of the arrests, pointing to ongoing debates in the Canadian Parliament over a new anti-terrorism law that would expand the powers of police and intelligence agencies.
Norris speaking outside the court said his client is "in a state of shock and disbelief."
He said his client would "defend himself vigorously" against the accusations, and noted Jaser was a permanent resident of Canada who has lived there for 20 years. Norris refused to say where Jaser was from, saying that revealing his nationality in the current climate amounted to demonizing him.
Canadian police have declined to release the men's nationalities, saying only they had been in Canada a "significant amount of time." But a London-based newspaper Al Arab reported Wednesday, citing unnamed sources in the Gulf, that Jaser is a Jordanian passport holder with full name Raed Jaser Ibrahim Amouri, who had visited the UAE several times and most recently in September 2011. The newspaper reported that the suspect also visited other Gulf countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It was not possible to independently confirm the report.
Esseghaier's, in a profile on a university department website — which has since been removed — says he was born in Tunis, Tunisia.
Muhammad Robert Heft, president of the P4E Support Group Inc., a non-profit organization that provides support to Muslims in Canada, said Jaser's father Mohammad Jaser came to him several times citing concerns about the radicalization of his son. The discussions took place between 2010 and 2011, while the father was living in a basement apartment in Heft's home in Markham, Ontario. The pair took up accommodation there while awaiting surgery for Jaser's younger brother, who had been in a serious car accident, because the apartment didn't have stairs.
"He came to me about his son saying he how concerned he was getting about the rigidness of his son and his interpretation of Islam. He was becoming self-righteous, becoming pushy, pushing his views on how much they (his family) should be practicing as a Muslim," said Heft.
"His son was becoming overzealous and intolerant in his understanding of the religion," he said. "Those are the telltale signs that can lead into the radicalization process."
The investigation surrounding the planned attack was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Canadian police said the men never got close to carrying out the attack.
The warning first came from an imam in Toronto, who in turn was tipped off by suspicious behavior on the part of one of the suspect.