Canadian accused of U.K. plot pleads not guilty
By Charmaine Noronha
TORONTO — A Canadian-born software developer accused of participating in an al-Qaida-inspired cell that plotted bombings in Britain pleaded not guilty Monday as his trial began under heavy security.
Momin Khawaja, 29, faces seven terrorism-related charges that could put him in prison for life if he’s convicted.
In an Ottawa courtroom guarded by police sniper teams from surrounding rooftops and tactical officers armed with submachine guns inside it, Khawaja entered his innocent plea in a soft-spoken voice.
Khawaja, a Canadian citizen of Pakistani descent, was dressed in a white shirt and gray suit. He sat impassively as federal prosecutors said how British surveillance and electronic bugs betrayed a murderous conspiracy.
"The aim was to cause death, injury and damage for religious and political purposes," lead prosecutor David McKercher said. Co-conspirators in Britain had purchased more than 1,300 pounds of fertilizer for use in making bombs, he said.
"The result would be massive destruction and loss of life" if a single such bomb was detonated, he said.
Khawaja is accused of collaborating with a group of British Muslims of Pakistani descent in 2004 in a thwarted plan to bomb a London nightclub, a shopping center near the city and parts of the British electrical and natural gas grids.
A London court last year convicted five of the plotters and sentenced them to life in prison while two others were acquitted. British authorities said Khawaja provided technical help with detonators, but they did not charge him.
He was charged in Canada under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed by Parliament as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Khawaja was arrested in March 2004 and has been in jail since. The proceedings were delayed by Khawaja’s legal challenges of the legislation, which allows the government to refuse to disclose sensitive information to an accused person on national security grounds.
Khawaja’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, had argued the new law’s secrecy provisions violated guarantees of fundamental justice and fair trial under Canada’s Constitution. Canada’s high court rejected those claims.
The defense has not signaled how it will attempt to rebut the allegations.
The star witness in the trial is expected to be Mohamed Junaid Babar, a one-time al-Qaida operative turned police informer who gave key testimony at the earlier trial in Britain.
Babar is facing charges in the United States and is hoping for leniency there in exchange for his co-operation.
The prosecution plans to buttress the British evidence with material gathered in Canada, including electronic equipment, weapons and ammunition seized in a raid on the Khawaja family home in March 2004.
Seized computer hardware produced e-mail records of Khawaja’s contacts with his alleged coconspirators in the U.K.
Khawaja faces a range of offenses, including helping to develop bomb detonators, possession of explosives, helping to finance terrorist activity, receiving terrorist training and facilitating terrorism.
The trial is expected to take four to six months.