Published: Thursday, March 12, 2009
OTTAWA – The first Canadian charged under the new Criminal Code provisions of the Anti-terrorism Act was sentenced Thursday to an additional 10 1/2 years in prison for his role in helping a group of Islamic extremists plot to bomb London nightclubs and other targets in 2004.
In an Ottawa courtroom, Ontario Superior Court Justice Douglas Rutherford sentenced Mohammed Momin Khawaja, 29, to another decade and a half behind bars, spread over convictions on seven charges – on top of the five years he has already spent in jail awaiting trial and sentencing. Five of the convictions were charges of participating in, contributing, financing, and facilitating terror, while two other convictions pertained to Khawaja’s developing and possessing an explosive device – the so-called Hi-Fi Digimonster.
Momin Khawaja is transported from the Ottawa courthouse following a day of hearings in July.
“He said he wanted to come home. I was hoping we could bring him home,” his mother Azra, who visited Khawaja behind bars earlier this week, told Canwest News Service on Thursday.
She and her husband, Mahboob, had hoped their son would be sentenced to time served for spending four years before conviction.
Khawaja told his parents he wanted them to pick up some honey, good meat, and the final episode of the Star Wars saga – just some of things he hasn’t had in jail, where he’s been a model inmate known for staying out of trouble. He spent his days working out to MuchMusic videos and praying on his mats. (There’s a painted arrow on the floor of his cell pointing to Mecca.)
“There’s a lot of new movies he hasn’t seen,” she said. “We still pray and hope he gets out,” said his mother, who hopes her son will appeal the conviction.
Khawaja’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he was disappointed with the ruling, and will be considering both a conviction and a sentencing appeal over the coming days.
“It’s a long ways from what the Crown attorney was seeking, thankfully, but I still think the sentence is excessive,” he told reporters.
Assistant Crown attorney David McKercher acknowledged the sentence was lighter than he had requested, and said the Crown “will be considering the decision carefully before we consider further options.”
In sentencing hearings, Greenspon had asked the judge to impose what amounted to ‘time served’ in custody, while the Crown had demanded two life terms. Khawaja was convicted in October of participating in, contributing to, financing and facilitating a group of British Islamist extremists plotting to bomb London and other British targets in 2004, and to wage a wider Islamic jihad against the West.
In court Thursday, Rutherford said Khawaja’s actions “do not warrant being sentenced to life.” While Khawaja will be eligible for parole after serving half his sentence, Rutherford declined to give Khawaja an “arithmetical” reduction in his sentence by giving him extra credit for the time he has already spent in jail, pointing out that the only three words Khawaja uttered in court were “no” and “not guilty.”
Indeed, Khawaja, who appeared Thursday in a navy pin-striped suit and white starched shirt, hair slicked back to the nape of his neck, beard trimmed, appeared expressionless as the sentence was delivered.
Rutherford also chastised Khawaja’s parents, who submitted written statements before sentencing that painted “a normal family situation,” the judge said.
“There was no mention of the array of military-style rifles, the crates of ammunition, the other weapons, the projectile-pocked human target on the basement wall (of the family’s Ottawa home). . . . It is impossible to think that the other members of the family were oblivious to Momin’s preoccupation with, and proclivity to participate in, violent jihad.”
Though he never testified, Khawaja’s defence was that he wanted to aid, and someday join, Muslim insurgents fighting Canadian and other NATO troops in Afghanistan, but was unwittingly duped into designing and building electronic triggers – nicknamed the Hi-Fi Digimonster – to detonate bombs the British group secretly planned to explode in and around London.
Prosecutors produced no direct evidence Khawaja knew of the plot to detonate 600 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at public sites in and around London, the focal point of the prosecution’s case. As a result, Rutherford acquitted him of two terrorism charges related to the Hi-Fi Digimonster, which he was building in his family’s home.
Instead, the judge convicted him on two general Criminal Code counts of developing and possessing an explosive device to detonate improvised explosive devices, “whenever, wherever,” in support of terrorism.
As this is the first sentencing under the post-9/11 anti-terror laws, Rutherford had no previous Canadian cases to use as sentencing benchmarks.
Art Cockfield, professor of Law at Queen’s University, thought the sentence was a fair one. “It is a lengthy one, given the fact that none of these acts came to fruition. But I do think we need to send a signal to other possible terrorists that they shouldn’t get involved in these activities.”
Despite the fact that the four British members of the plot were sentenced to indeterminate life sentences, Cockfield does not think this suggests Canada or Rutherford are comparatively “soft on terror.”
“I think that, both to the English bench and the English people, the threat of terrorism seems much more real, because they have been subjected to terrorist attacks. That might explain the harsher sentence,” he said.
In general, Cockfield thinks it’s important to not inadvertently turn people such as Khawaja into martyrs.
“I subscribe to the theory that they are misguided youth that have been inappropriately radicalized. That is not to say we should be lenient, but we should not demonize them.”
The London plot ringleader, Omar Khyam, and four others, were sentenced to indeterminate life sentences for conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life. None will be considered for parole before they have served at least 17 1/2 years, and some “may never be released,” the British trial judge said.
A comparative domestic case might be the 1980s urban guerrilla group Direct Action, also known as the Squamish Five.
They blew up a BC Hydro substation, firebombed a Vancouver video store, and, in October 1982, bombed the property of Toronto’s Litton Industries, which produced guidance components for U.S. cruise missiles. Ten people were injured and the plant sustained $3.8 million in damage.
Leader Anne Hanson received a life term. Four others got sentences ranging from six to 22 years.
Meanwhile, the Front de liberation du Quebec’s Paul Rose served 11 years for his part in the 1970 killing of Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s labour minister at the time. His younger brother, Jacques, served five years of an eight-year sentence.
When the five FLQ “Liberation Cell” kidnappers of British trade commissioner James Cross returned to Canada from exile in Cuba and France, they received sentences ranging up to three years, though most were released in a matter of months.