Via terror plot sentencing ends with lawyer urging judge to hospitalize Chiheb Esseghaier

— The moral and legal legitimacy of a high-profile Canadian terrorism trial was questioned Friday, when a court-appointed lawyer almost begged the judge to hospitalize one of the two convicted men.

Unless is forcibly treated for his apparent schizophrenia, it will be impossible to know how responsible he is for his crimes, argued Russell Silverstein during the sentencing hearing.

In combative exchanges with Ontario Superior Court Judge Michael Code, he raised the “horrific concept” of a man being punished for acts that should rightly be blamed on his mental illness.

“There is no question that he is sick, seriously sick,” the lawyer said. “The only way to get a grip on those questions” — of how much he is to blame and whether he can be treated — “is to hospitalize him now.”

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Friday’s session capped a remarkable, contentious and sometimes bizarre sentencing hearing that lasted months, derailed at times by questions of Esseghaier’s mental fitness, at others by his erratic behaviour.

Esseghaier and a second man, , were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for the benefit of a terrorist group in March.

An undercover FBI agent recorded them discussing plans to blow a hole in a railway bridge and assassinate prominent Canadians with a sniper rifle. Esseghaier also mused about poisoning the food on a military base and somehow causing a volcano to explode.

The Crown has asked both be sentenced to life in prison.

Alexandra Newbould / The Canadian PressAlexandra Newbould / The Canadian PressIn an artist's sketch, Chiheb Esseghaier (left) and Raed Jaser (centre) appear in court in Toronto on Thursday, March 5, 2015 as Justice Michael Code looks on.

Esseghaier’s behaviour was odd from the time the trial started. He appeared in court in a ratty blue ski jacket. He spoke only rarely, and through a tangled beard and missing teeth. He often appeared to be asleep in the prisoner’s box.

But it wasn’t until after the jury reached its verdict that the issue of his mental health came up. He had largely refused to participate in the court process; he told the judge he wanted to be tried under the laws of God, not man. He hired no lawyer and presented no defence. So it was only during his sentencing a lawyer appointed to advise the court on his behalf asked for a psychiatric evaluation.

The report that came back was stark and unequivocal. Esseghaier, wrote forensic psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Ramshaw, was actively psychotic and likely schizophrenic. His many delusions included the belief the other prisoners and guards were making a film about him and it was still the year 2014.

RelatedProsecutors ask for life sentences for both men in VIA plot despite arguments on Esseghaier ’s mental healthVIA rail terror plotter Chiheb Esseghaier interrupts sentencing by spitting, insisting he’s not delusionalWould-be terrorist Chiheb Esseghaier is clearly insane, but should that even matter in court?

A second psychiatrist later testified he, too, believed Esseghaier to be mentally ill and likely schizophrenic. After a week that saw him repeatedly act up in court — he spat at a witness, threw a water glass at Silverstein, and screamed loud fantasies about being taken into heaven — the Crown conceded that same fact Thursday.

All of which made what happened Friday so much more strange.

Silverstein asked Code to have Esseghaier hospitalized, where he would likely be forcibly treated with anti-psychotic medication, before sentencing. The goal, in Silverstein’s view, was to puzzle out the core unanswered question in the case.

Esseghaier’s descent into mental illness appeared to coincide with his increased religiosity and eventual radicalism. If the mental illness caused the radicalism, then it could be argued he was not responsible, or at the very least less responsible, for what he did.

But when Silverstein rose to make that argument, Code interrupted him at every turn. He disputed the idea Esseghaier was necessarily mentally ill, or at least as mentally ill as the two doctors made him out to be. He expressed concern with the fact two “secular” psychiatrists had come to such conclusions about an obviously religious man. And he repeatedly scoffed at Silverstein’s interpretation of the evidence.

The lawyer appeared by turns frustrated and baffled by Code. He wasn’t asking the judge to let Esseghaier off. He said he didn’t know what role the man’s illness played in his crimes, but treating him was one way to potentially find out.

“The tragedy and injustice of locking someone up for life who committed these offences as a result of an illness beyond his control is quite frankly a horrific concept,” he said. “Why would you want to run the risk of doing that, especially when there is a mechanism (for) getting the data you need?”

In the end, Code reserved his judgment until Sept. 22.

Largely lost in the furor over Esseghaier has been the fate of his co-conspirator. Jaser, too, faces the potential of life in prison, although his lawyer has asked he serve only 24 more months.

At the end of the day Friday, Jaser asked the judge if he could hug his father, who has been in court almost every day during the long trial. Code agreed and the two embraced, Jaser clenching his eyes to hold back tears.

“I want you to be strong and believe in God,” his father said.

National Post

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