Canada: Would-Be Rail Terrorist Cites Shariah Law At Length During Courtroom Proceedings

From Edward Prutschi of the Toronto Sun:
There’s crazy. And then there’s legally crazy.

To the average person, berating a jury with passages from the Qur’an while on trial for an alleged Islamic terrorist plot would be pretty crazy. But it wasn’t until after Chiheb Esseghaier’s May conviction for multiple terrorism charges in a plot to derail a Via passenger train that the lawyer appointed to assist Esseghaier — despite his repeated refusals to seek any professional legal advice — raised the issue of Esseghaier’s mental state.

Esseghaier consented when asked whether he would be willing to participate in a psychiatric assessment to assist the judge prior to sentencing.

Dr. Lisa Ramshaw conducted the psychiatric assessment and raised concerns in her testimony this week that Esseghaier suffers from grandiose delusions and possible schizophrenia. The timing of these revelations — at the commencement of a sentencing hearing and months after a lengthy jury trial — raises the spectre of a new round of legal wrangling just when prosecutors thought they were coming to the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Legal fitness — the question Justice Michael Code is now being asked to grapple with — shouldn’t be confused with the broader question of “not criminally responsible by reason of mental defect.”

Helpfully truncated by legal wags as “NCR,” you might know it more colloquially as “the insanity defence.” Whether Esseghaier was so mentally ill that he could not appreciate the nature and consequences of his actions while plotting to send a passenger train hurtling to the bottom of a cliff was an issue never raised at trial.

Instead, what has now been put in play by the psychiatric assessment is the question of whether Esseghaier is sufficiently in control of his faculties to understand the court process and participate in it. If Esseghaier is found unfit, the proceedings against him would be frozen and he would remain in legal limbo until he is deemed legally fit to proceed.

But if Esseghaier’s delusional schizophrenia is so manifest now that it short-circuits his sentencing, it might also cause the court to ask: “Was this guy fit enough to go through the trial in the first place?” That question raises the disturbing spectre of the jury verdict being cast aside and a whole new trial after (if ever) Esseghaier regains his cognitive faculties.

So what does he have to do to be found unfit in Canada? Refusing to hire a lawyer and waxing poetically about Shariah law — however ill-advised — is not enough to cast doubt on your ability to understand the trial proceedings. A person so committed to the twisted teachings of a perverted strain of Islam might well make the perfectly rational choice to refuse the assistance of an infidel lawyer while using his trial to spew condemnations of Western democratic law. Some might call this behaviour crazy. For Esseghaier it might be more aptly titled Tuesday.

If you’re looking for a clue as to Code’s leanings on the question of Esseghaier’s fitness, it’s worth recalling that in May he said, “I don’t think strong religious beliefs, even extreme ones, can be equated with mental disorder” and noted that throughout the trial Esseghaier’s behaviour, while at times disruptive, was always “understandable and consistent ... driven by his strong religious belief which he always explains and articulates.”

And so it is in the topsy-turvy world of the Canadian criminal courtroom that being understandable, consistent and articulate in your craziness may leave you just sane enough to spend the rest of your life behind bars.

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