Via train plot trial: The strange non-defence of Chiheb Esseghaier

He refused to mount a defence or even enter a plea. A look at the strange courtroom tactics of Chiheb Esseghaier, one of two men accused in the Via Rail terror plot.

Co-accused refused defence or to enter a plea as Criminal Code not based on Qur'an

What the jury did not hear in the Via train plot trial

7 years ago
The strange non-defence of Chiheb Esseghaier 2:38

Prosecutors have labelled him a terrorist ready to commit mass murder in the name of Islam. The defence lawyers for his co-accused portray him as a dupe and an easy mark for those who wanted to take advantage of his naiveté.

Of course, the jury will decide whether Chiheb Esseghaier is guilty of a series of terrorism charges related to the alleged plot to derail a Via Rail passenger train between New York City and Toronto. He and his co-accused, Raed Jaser, were arrested in 2013.

Yet there are many aspects of Esseghaier's behaviour that neither the jury nor the public have known about until now.

Since the trial began on Feb. 1, virtually all of Esseghaier's words and actions in court — save for a brief, rambling statement at the end, read out by a court-appointed lawyer — have been kept secret from the jury and public under a court-ordered publication ban that has been lifted today as the jury goes into its deliberations.

They include:

  • Asking the judge to help him persuade members of Parliament to change the Criminal Code to reflect the Qur'an
  • Praying in the prisoner's dock and ignoring the judge's order to stop
  • Displaying an unusual aversion to the number three

What those words and deeds suggest is a man whose level of religious zeal is unmatched by many, and whose unorthodox actions have clearly tested the patience of Judge Michael Code and the conduct of the trial.

Perhaps the most unusual of Esseghaier's interjections are those surrounding the number three. On at least two occasions, with the jury absent, he spoke about his apparent aversion to matters involving three.

Last month, noting that Esseghaier was falling asleep in court, Judge Code asked him whether he was sleeping well in the prison where he is being held.

Esseghaier told him he realized not long after his arrest that the jail had given him one blanket and two sheets and he saw it as a symbol, a symbol he could not accept.

"I told them I cannot accept symbolism because one blanket and two sheets suggests God has a son and a wife and God does not need to have a son and a wife because God is the creator of all things. So I can't accept the metaphor."

Esseghaier said he decided then to use only the blanket. When guards removed his blanket, he said he began using a towel.

Judge Code then asked that the prison instead provide him with a blanket.

A few days later, the number three came up again as Esseghaier asked whether a police officer who was testifying had raised only three fingers on his hand as he swore an oath to tell the truth. The officer had in fact raised all five fingers.

There is language in the Qur'an that rejects the Holy Trinity, in favour of one God. But the number three "has no sinister evocations," according to Walid Saleh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto.

There have been other occasions where Esseghaier's actions have been deemed "shameful and unacceptable" by the judge.

Earlier this year, as jury selection was about to begin, Esseghaier refused to leave his jail cell.

The judge said he had to be carried to the police van, then into the courthouse cells.

Esseghaier's co-accused is Raed Jaser, whose lawyers portrayed Esseghaier as a dupe easily led astray. (Alex Tavshunsky/CBC )

When Esseghaier entered the courtroom, he demanded that he be allowed to leave as he did not want to be seen to participate in the trial.

At one point, six guards surrounded him when he threatened to jump out of the prisoner's box. Eventually, he was removed from the court and watched the proceedings via closed circuit television from another room.

'You allow adultery'

That confrontation was one of several times when Esseghaeir clashed with Judge Code. Often these clashes occurred when Esseghaier would make statements condemning Canada.

"You allow homosexual marriage, it is not criminal here. Animals do not allow homosexual marriage. You allow adultery," Esseghaier said as the judge asked him to sit down.

The disagreements continued until one dramatic day as potential jurors gathered to be selected for the trial.

They returned from a lunch break to find Esseghaier in the prisoner's box, performing his prayers. The judge ordered him to stop, but Esseghaier ignored him. Judge Code then asked security guards to empty the courtroom.

He later informed those who witnessed the event to disregard it, blaming himself for not granting Esseghaier enough time at lunch to pray.

Lawyers for Raed Jaser, the co-accused, moved for a mistrial at that point, but the judge denied it. Earlier, they had asked for separate trials, but Judge Code also turned aside that request.

'Petition to Parliament'

Esseghaier also asked the judge to help him persuade Parliament to change the law to embrace the Qur'an.

It happened as the judge allowed Esseghaeir to make what is probably an unprecedented formal motion that the trial be held according to Islam's holy book.

Esseghaier submitted a written argument, then spoke in court for half an hour in June, trying to persuade Code to reject Canada's criminal laws.

Code's reply was to suggest Esseghaier try to petition Parliament through an MP.

While the judge told Esseghaier he was bound by his oath to apply the Criminal Code, he did praise his argument in court.

"You're a very articulate, persuasive man who crafts a good argument here," said Code.

He even invited Esseghaier to extend his submission, posing a theological question.

"Conspiracy to commit murder is one of the five counts you are charged with," Code said. So just using that as an example, is God's law all that different from Canadian law when it comes to conspiracy to commit murder? Is it really that different?"

Esseghaier replied with a long discussion about truth and falsehood, and his motion ultimately failed.

But eventually Esseghaier and the judge seemed to find a way to work together.

Trial Judge Michael Code tried to keep Esseghaier engaged in the process. (University of Toronto faculty of law)

Each day of the trial, in the absence of the jury, Judge Code read a statement noting Esseghaier's objection to the trial, saying he was only in court to "offer sincere advice" to those present, not as an accused in a criminal trial.

And as the evidentiary phase of the trial wrapped up, Judge Code made a special address to the jury on Esseghaier's behalf, with Esseghaier's approval.

"Mr. Esseghaeir has asked me to explain to you the reason why he has consistently remained silent throughout the trial," the judge said.

He then quoted Essseghaier's own words about the uniqueness of the Qur'an and the perfection of God, and he told the jurors they must not draw any adverse inference from Esseghaier's decision not to participate in the trial.

No family members or friends have attended the trial, and Esseghaier has no lawyer.

But his own words spoken in court near the beginning of the trial process may point to his lack of concern over the verdict.

"This life is jail," he told the judge, "because we are far from our creator and we would like to be close to him."


Laura Lynch


CBC Radio correspondent Laura Lynch has reported from many parts of the world, most recently Europe and the Middle East. She has also worked as the CBC's Washington correspondent and as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. She is based in Vancouver.