Canada’s Supreme Court on Friday upheld an anti-terrorism law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, ruling unanimously that those who choose to engage in terrorism must “pay a very heavy price.”
The law’s constitutionality was challenged by Mohammad Momin Khawaja, convicted in Canada of terrorism for involvement with a British group that had plotted unsuccessfully to set off bombs in London.
It was also challenged by two men accused of terrorism by the United States for trying to buy missiles or weapons technology for the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers.
The court rejected arguments that the law’s definition of terrorism was overly broad. It upheld Khawaja's life sentence and confirmed the orders to extradite the other two to the United States.
Khawaja, a Canadian of Pakistani descent, was the first to be convicted under the law. He was sentenced in 2008 to 10-1/2 years in prison, and his sentence was then extended to life after appeal by the government.
The trial judge noted that Khawaja referred to Osama Bin Laden as “the most beloved person to me in the ... whole world, after Allah.” He was found to have participated in a terrorism training camp in Pakistan and to have designed a device dubbed the “hi fi digimonster” for detonating bombs.
“The appellant was a willing participant in a terrorist group,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the 7-0 decision, adding that he was “apparently remorseless.”
“He was committed to bringing death on all those opposed to his extremist ideology and took many steps to provide support to the group. The bomb detonators he attempted to build would have killed many civilians had his plans succeeded.”
The law applies to any act committed for a political, religious or ideological purpose with the intention of intimidating the public by causing death or serious bodily harm, or substantial property damage, or causing serious interference with an essential service.
The court also ruled that Canada can proceed to extradite two men the United States has accused of involvement with the Tamil Tigers, which waged a bloody war for independence in Sri Lanka and is considered a terrorist organization by Washington and Ottawa.
The Canadian government declined to comment on when they would extradited.
Piratheepan Nadarajah was alleged to have tried to purchase surface-to-air missiles and AK-47 assault rifles for the Tamil Tigers from an undercover officer posing as a black-market arms dealer on Long Island, New York.
The other man, Suresh Sriskandarajah, was alleged to have helped Tamil Tigers get electronic equipment, submarine and warship design software and communications equipment.
They surrendered to the government ahead of the court decision, their lawyers said.
BEYOND ‘LEGITIMATE EXPRESSION’
The court disagreed that the federal law's terrorism provisions had put a chilling effect on Canadians' freedom of expression and was disproportionately broad.
“Only individuals who go well beyond the legitimate expression of a political, religious or ideological thought, belief or opinion, and instead engage in one of the serious forms of violence - or threaten one of the serious forms of violence - listed (in the law) need fear liability under the terrorism provisions of the Criminal Code,” McLachlin wrote.
She quoted with approval the appeals court decision in the Khawaja case that faulted the Ottawa trial judge’s sentence for failing to send a “clear and unmistakable message that terrorism is reprehensible and those who choose to engage in it will pay a very heavy price.”
The original sentence of 10-1/2 years does “not approach an adequate sentence for such acts,” she concluded.
Khawaja's lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said it was a “terrible day” for his client and said too often people were investigated or prosecuted for their religious or political beliefs.
“It’s a ... very unfortunate ruling for minorities in this country, and we’re extremely disappointed with the result,” he told reporters in the foyer of the Supreme Court.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the decision was important as Canada was not immune to the threat of terrorism. “The court sent a strong message that terrorism will not be treated leniently in Canada,” he said.