A man accused of plotting to derail a Via passenger train between Toronto and New York has sharply criticized the Canadian government for its military involvement in Afghanistan, labelling it a deadly and wrong form of "colonization."
"I want that in Afghanistan they will not suffer again from colonization – NATO colonization. Those who do colonize, they know very well that they are wrong," Chiheb Esseghaier said in a 40-minute interview with CBC News at the Metro West Detention Centre near Toronto.
Speaking from behind a thick pane of glass and gripping a telephone handset to communicate, Esseghaier spurned opportunities to claim his innocence of the terrorism charges he faces, saying the media’s portrayal of him has focused on terrorism, a portrayal he says is "unfair."
'I prefer to pass all my life in jail rather than be judged by laws made by humans.' —Chiheb Esseghaier
"What I would like people to know about me is that I am Muslim. I am not selfish," Esseghaier said. "As I would like to succeed [in getting] my PhD, I also want that for my brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. I feel myself free of colonization and I want that for my brothers and sisters."
Esseghaier was studying for his PhD at the Université de Sherbrooke. He was arrested in April and has been in custody ever since. He moved to Canada from his native Tunisia in 2008.
During the interview, Esseghaier spoke slowly and deliberately, sometimes asking for his remarks to be read back to him to ensure he was being quoted correctly. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and glasses, he was polite. Occasionally, he would smile, revealing several missing bottom teeth. Prison officials said he had just finished a meal, and Esseghaier said he is being treated well. He noted he prays in his cell several times a day and takes regular showers.
Esseghaier also criticized his co-accused Raed Jaser, whom he met at a mosque in Toronto. Unlike Esseghaier, Jaser has hired a lawyer to help him fight the criminal charges they both face. Esseghaier, on the other hand, says he refuses to be judged based on the laws of the Criminal Code, repeatedly asking to be judged according to the Qur'an.
"I was disappointed when I heard this, because Jaser is a Muslim and as far as I know he believes in the Qur'an. I don’t understand why he chose another reference (defence) than the Qur'an," Esseghaier said.
Plans Qur'an-based court defence
Esseghaier has been asking for a Muslim lawyer who will use the Qur'an as a basis for his defence, but he said he is now preparing his own arguments for the judge, in effect, acting as his own counsel.
He said he expects to present his arguments as early as Tuesday, his next scheduled appearance in court. If he is unsuccessful in persuading the judge to allow him to use the Qur'an, Esseghaier suggested he may not participate in the case against him.
"I prefer to pass all my life in jail rather than be judged by laws made by humans," he said.
Criminal defence lawyer Nader Hasan, a member of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, has said he does not believe Esseghaier can get the lawyer he wants.
"You cannot answer those charges without resorting to law based on man-made Canadian Criminal code and Canadian constitutional principles," Hassan said.
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Not only does he think Esseghaier will not find the lawyer he wants, Hassan said the accused is potentially ignoring Islamic law.
"As a Muslim I know enough to know that Muslims, whether they live in a Muslim majority country or a majority non-Muslim county, they have an obligation to follow the law of the state."
On more than one occasion, Esseghaier returned to the subject of Western nations' involvement in what he called "Muslim lands," particularly Afghanistan.
He recited a list of what he sees as negative consequences of military invasions.
"First of all colonization is bad because you are taking land which is not yours," he said, adding that people die or become poor.
"But the spiritual effect is more important. You are destroying slowly, slowly the local culture," he said.
Canada ended its official combat role in Afghanistan in 2011, though trainers still remain in the country. They are scheduled to pull out in 2014.
As the interview ended, Esseghaier stood up and grabbed a Styrofoam cup of coffee, smiling and waving goodbye as a guard arrived to lead him back to his cell.