Canadian judge sentences ‘Toronto 18′ ringleader to life in prison for homegrown terror plot

By Rob Gillies, AP
Monday, January 18, 2010

Judge sentences ‘Toronto 18′ ringleader

BRAMPTON, Ontario — The ringleader of a homegrown terror plot that planned to set off truck bombs in front of Canada’s main stock exchange and two government buildings was given a life sentence on Monday.

Zakaria Amara, 24, pleaded guilty in October. He acknowledged being a leader of the so-called Toronto 18 plot to set off bombs outside Toronto’s Stock Exchange, a building housing Canada’s spy agency and a military base. The goal was to scare Canada into removing its troops from Afghanistan.

Amara, a Jordanian-born Canadian citizen, received Canada’s first life sentence for a terrorism offense.

The 2006 arrests of Amara and 17 others made international headlines and heightened fears in a country where many people thought they were relatively immune from terrorist strikes.

Judge Bruce Durno said Monday that the attack would have been the most horrific crime in Canada’s history if the plot been successful.

“What this case revealed was spine-chilling,” Durno said. “The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada.”

“Zakaria Amara did not just commit a criminal offense. He committed a terrorist offense that would have had catastrophic and fatal consequences,” Durno added. “He did not do it as a foot soldier, he did so as the leader.”

Amara had his head down, staring at the floor during his sentencing. After the judge read his sentencing Amara asked to address the judge and said, “I just want to reassure you that the promises I made (to rehabilitate), I’ll do my best.”

Before he left the courtroom, he blew a kiss to his family.

The prosecution sought life imprisonment, while Amara’s defense asked for a sentence of between 18 and 20 years. The life sentence is the stiffest penalty yet imposed under Canadian anti-terrorism laws, but Durno said Amara will be eligible to apply for parole after serving six years and three months in prison — around the time of his 30th birthday. Durno said he didn’t want to permanently decide Amara’s fate.

However, defense lawyer Michael Lacy said the parole board isn’t likely to grant Amara parole after six years and three months.

“While he may be eligible for parole in six and a half years that doesn’t mean he will be paroled,” Lacy said.

Lacy said they were disappointed with the sentence in light of his Amara’s “genuine expressions of remorse and in light of his denunciation of the terrorist activity.” He said they haven’t decided whether to appeal.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superintendent Jamie Jagoe said the case illustrates that Canada is not immune to terrorism.

Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor and national security expert, said the unprecedented life sentence is significant, and he doubts Amara will be granted parole after six years.

“Yes it may look dismayingly soft that someone given a life sentence could be paroled in six years, but on the other hand the judgment on parole is discretionary, it’s not automatic,” Wark said.

Prosecutors said Amara planned to rent U-Haul trucks, pack them with explosives and detonate them via remote control toward the end of 2006. Police found he used a public library computer to conduct searches on bomb-making and the chemicals needed for explosives. A search of his home also turned up a bomb-making manual, circuit boards, and a device that could trigger an explosion via a cell phone.

Through a police agent, Amara tried to buy what he believed was three tons of ammonium nitrate — three times what was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

His personal computer also had recordings of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other jihad materials.

The case was developed after the suspects were followed, wiretapped as well as infiltrated by two paid police informants. One was paid more than US$4 million.

Amara apologized in an open letter to Canadians at his sentencing hearing on Thursday, saying he deserved nothing but Canadians’ contempt.

Amara was born in Jordan and baptized as an Orthodox Christian before he converted to Islam at age 10. His family lived Cyprus, Saudi Arabia and Jordan before they moved to Canada in 1997.

Amara, who is married and has a four-year old daughter, worked at a gas station at the time of his arrest, when he was 20. He was a first-year electronics student at a local college.

Durno also sentenced one of Amara’s coconspirators, Saad Gaya, 22, on Monday to 12 years in prison, minus seven-and-a-half years credit for pretrial custody. The judge called Gaya a “helper” in the plot.

Since the arrest of the Toronto 18, four have now pleaded guilty and one was convicted after a trial.

Charges were stayed or dropped against seven people and six men still face trial. One man’s trial began last week and five others face a trial in March.

Durno said the plot posed a real threat.

“It was not a group of amateurs whose efforts were inevitably doomed to failure,” Durno said.

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