TORONTO (Reuters) - One of two men accused in an alleged al Qaeda-backed plan to derail a passenger train in Canada appeared in court on Wednesday and disputed the authority of Canadian law to judge him, saying the criminal code was not a holy book.
Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian-born doctoral student, faces charges that include conspiracy to murder and working with a terrorist group.
He and another suspect, Raed Jaser, are charged with plotting to derail a passenger train, and U.S. security sources say they sought to attack at a bridge near the U.S.-Canada border.
In a brief hearing where he was ordered back into custody, Esseghaier, 30, said the allegations against him are based on laws that are unreliable because they are not the work of God.
“All of these conclusions was taken out based on (the) criminal code,” he told a Toronto court. “The criminal code is not (a) holy book.”
He added: “Only the Creator is perfect.”
Esseghaier and Jaser were arrested on Monday in separate raids after a joint Canada-U.S. investigation that started last year, based on a tip from a member of the Muslim community.
Jaser was remanded into custody on Tuesday. His lawyer, John Norris, said he denies the charges against him and will fight them vigorously.
Esseghaier, who has a thick black beard and wore a blue-black windbreaker, has been a doctoral student since 2010 at the INRS institute near Montreal where he is researching the use of nanotechnology to detect cancer and other diseases.
Authorities said there is no connection to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing in which three people were killed and 264 injured.
But U.S. officials say investigators are trying to establish if the two suspects were part of a wider network with associates in the United States, especially in New York.
Canadian authorities have said they linked Esseghaier and Jaser to al Qaeda factions in Iran. However, they said there was no indication their plans, which police described as the first known al Qaeda-backed plot on Canadian soil, were state-sponsored. Tehran has vehemently rejected any ties to the suspects.
Both suspects are due to appear in court, probably by video link, on May 23rd for a procedural hearing. A date has yet to be set for bail hearings.
In court on Wednesday, Esseghaier declined to use an Arabic-language interpreter, although he seemed at times to struggle to understand the proceedings. On Tuesday he opted not to have a lawyer for his initial court appearance in Montreal.
As a Tunisian, he is likely fluent in Arabic and French, and the academic papers he co-authored are in English.
Jaser was born in the United Arab Emirates and came to Canada with his parents as refugees 20 years ago, although he only recently obtained status as a permanent resident, Canada’s equivalent to a U.S. green card.
U.S. officials have said the suspects were believed to have worked on a plan to blow up a trestle on the Canadian side of the border as the Maple Leaf, Amtrak’s daily run between Toronto and New York, passed over it.
There was never any immediate threat to rail passengers or to the public, Canadian police said.
Police had tracked Esseghaier for a year before making the arrests. U.S. sources close to the investigation said he made several trips to the United States, with one official saying that “loose ends” were still being pursued in the United States.
CBC Radio cited a Canadian official as saying they had monitored Esseghaier’s visit to a conference in Cancun, Mexico in 2012.
On the timing of the arrests, some Canadian media speculated on Wednesday that officials felt a sense of urgency to act preventively after the Boston Marathon bombings. Other media reports wondered if officials had intelligence suggesting the plot would soon be ready to launch.
“I don’t get into operational matters,” Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said when asked to comment.
Jaser’s lawyer Norris called the timing of the arrests “notable,” citing the events in Boston and anti-terrorism legislation being debated in the Canadian parliament.
The alleged link to Iran puzzled some security experts as there has been little evidence of attempts by the few al Qaeda figures there to attack the West.
However, a U.S. government source said Iran is home to a little-known network of alleged al Qaeda fixers and “facilitators” based in the city of Zahedan, very close to Iran’s borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran last year over what it said was Iran’s support for terrorist groups, as well as its nuclear program and its hostility towards Israel.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Alastair Sharp; Writing by Louise Egan; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Cynthia Osterman