Ottawa Citizen on Handling Terrorism Cases
The Saturday edition of The Ottawa Citizen carried an article entitled Difficult balance tips Canada's terror trials - 'Toronto 18' case shows risks of post-9/11 prosecution.
The Citizen article takes a look at the difficulties that authorities face in trying to prevent terrorist acts and in gathering evidence that will stand up in court. The main difficulty arises when police swoop in to arrest suspects before they strike. Some accusations may well be premature or even unfounded.
This is in the context of the dropping of all charges against many of the members of the so-called "Toronto 18", a group of Moslem men from the Toronto area arrested in 2006 on suspicions of planning a series of terror attacks against government targets and officials.
However, criminal charges against 11 of the 18 are still proceeding. The trial has not yet started and much of the legal manoeuvres have happened under the cover of a publication ban. It is expected that the Crown will present evidence that members of the group allegedly wanted to purchase 3 tons of the type of fertilizer used to make huge car bombs.
The article does a good job of cutting through a lot of the recent hysteria surrounding the case: there have been observers who have commented that the case is "falling apart" and that Canada is showing that it will never be capable of tackling terrorism cases of any complexity. Others have taken the position that this is just an example of persecution against innocent individuals, more loud-mouthed than dangerous, and that there has never been a real threat of terrorism in Canada (despite the 1985 Air India bombing conspiracy organized in Canada that killed more than 300 people, most of them Canadians).
The main points raised by the article:
- "Charges are routinely stayed in criminal cases, especially when inchoate crimes are alleged such as aiding and abetting ..., attempting to ... conspiracy to ... and the like. Most common are gang- and drug-related conspiracies."
- "Several parties had a hand in raising expectations around the case. Following the June 2006 arrests, authorities held a major press conference (...) The lurid hype surrounding the case, including the storming of Parliament and beheading of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, came not from the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service or prosecutors but from unnamed media sources and defence lawyers."
- "Homegrown terror cells, unlike professional terror groups with extensive tradecraft and experience, do not typically have the same operational discipline and well-defined boundaries, making it difficult to sort out the real players from the hangers-on and the bystanders."
- "Police and CSIS relied on information from at least two informants who had infiltrated the group, which is often very difficult to judge and very difficult to corroborate..."
- "A Federal Court judge, or judges, signed off on the 18 arrest warrants. The standard for arrest -- reasonable grounds to believe the person committed an offence -- is far lower than the standard for a successful prosecution."
- "Sometimes, however, 'when the rubber hits the road and the Crown starts to present its case, it's not uncommon to start staying charges ... because you really don't have the horses for (all) of them,' says Mr. Paciocco. [David Paciocco, University of Ottawa law professor]. Regardless, however, 'when you're talking about depriving individuals of their liberty and you ultimately end up conceding that you don't have enough evidence to even run a credible case against them and you held them for a long period of time, that's a clear admission of failure. It's not a statement that the system is working'."