PRESUMED JAILED TERRORIST SAYS HE’S INSANE
Chiheb Esseghaier spent months insisting he was sane. He did it in court, screaming through a tangled beard, spitting and pounding his chest.
“I am similar to the prophet Jesus and the prophet Joseph,” he howled once, explaining why he lashed out at a lawyer who suggested he might be ill. “I just throw the cup at his face because he is lying.”
Esseghaier, a Tunisianborn, Montreal-based PhD student, was convicted in 2015 of planning to blow a hole in an Ontario railway bridge. He also mused on tape about poisoning the food on a military base and setting off a volcano.
His arrest and conviction were hailed as landmarks in the Canadian battle against terrorism. But his case has since morphed into something much stranger and less morally clear.
According to multiple doctors, Esseghaier is severely mentally ill and almost certainly schizophrenic. He had long rejected that diagnosis. But in court documents filed this week, he revealed that he now agrees.
He’s undergoing treatment in a B.C. prison — including a regimen of antipsychotic drugs — and is hoping to appeal his life sentence. “I believe I was unfit to stand trial,” he wrote in a document filed Wednesday in the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Esseghaier’s treatment and appeal have thrust his story back into the public eye more than two years after the conclusion of his trial.
The particulars of his case are close to unique, according to legal experts. But they effectively boil down to this: Everyone involved, from the police, to the prosecutors and the judge, believed he was a fanatic, so no one noticed he was insane, at least not until it was too late. As a result, he went through his entire trial without several key questions — about criminal responsibility and fitness to stand — being tested. He was allowed to represent himself, and mount no real defence, even as he visibly unravelled in open court.
“I think we were all somewhat guilty of assuming he was saying things a radical Islamist would say,” said John Norris, who represented his co-accused, Raed Jaser. As a result, few noticed that he was also exhibiting the telltale signs of an escalating mental disease.
Esseghaier and Jaser were arrested in 2013. Their bust was hailed as a major victory against terrorism, one that likely prevented hundreds of deaths. (Although the two were never anywhere close to consummating any plot.) The key witness in their trial was an undercover FBI agent who courted Esseghaier and nudged him toward revealing his plans.
The portrait that emerged of Esseghaier at trial was of a man who had let his life fall apart even as he grew more and more religiously devout. He was born in 1982, in Tunisia, and raised in a moderate Muslim family. He moved to Montreal in 2008 to pursue his PhD and soon devolved into extremism.
His new-found religious zeal dovetailed with a deteriorating personal life. He would spend hours in the washroom, but never seemed to bathe. He looked and smelled like a homeless person, according to one colleague. In recordings played in court, he rambled and seemed incapable of sustaining coherent thought.
Those are all cardinal symptoms of the early stages of schizophrenia, according to Dr. Hy Bloom, a forensic psychiatrist and expert on the intersection between mental health and Canadian criminal law. However, at his trial, Esseghaier’s mental health was effectively ignored, at least until after his verdict.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Code allowed Esseghaier to represent himself and sat patiently through his long, often incoherent, rants on Qu’ranic law and other topics. Only after the verdict came down, during the sentencing phase, did Code, at the urging of an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, allow a psychiatrist to examine Esseghaier.
Dr. Lisa Ramshaw found Esseghaier to be actively delusional and likely schizophrenic. A second doctor concurred. But Code nonetheless sentenced him to life in prison.
“When I originally filed my appeal, I said that I only wanted to appeal conviction. At the time I filed that notice, I was very ill,” Esseghaier wrote in a document filed Wednesday.
“I was suffering from delusions and believed that I would die, and my soul would ascend into heaven on December 25, 2014. Because of this delusion, I did not believe that the life sentence imposed was real.”
It’s not unusual, Bloom said, for those suffering from the early stages of a disease like schizophrenia to turn to religion as a coping mechanism. There’s also a significant historical correlation between mental illness and lone wolf terrorism.
At the same time, it doesn’t necessary mean that, in Esseghaier’s case, his mental illness caused his extreme beliefs. (Indeed, he’s still arguing now, after treatment, that he should have been tried by the “Holy Qu’ran.”) Nor does it mean that Esseghaier was necessarily unfit to stand trial, or not responsible for his actions, because of his illness.
The problem is that none of those issues were parsed out before trial. And because they weren’t, the whole process may have been tainted.
That at least is what John Norris believes. He wants the Court of Appeal to order a new trial for both Esseghaier and his client. That would come at a cost, he believes. “But it’s a much greater cost to the administration of justice to allow for the possibility that an unfit person was put on trial.”
None of this is likely to be settled soon. A lawyer assisting Esseghaier believes the full appeal won’t be heard before the middle of 2018 at the earliest, three years after Esseghaier was convicted and five years after his arrest.
When police took Esseghaier into custody, in April 2013, he was effectively homeless. They arrested him outside a McDonald’s in Montreal’s Central Station. In pictures from that time, he’s always wearing a faded blue ski jacket over a healthy frame, the same jacket he would wear in court. Day after day, it grew baggier; his body faded away.
I WAS SUFFERING FROM DELUSIONS AND BELIEVED THAT I WOULD DIE, AND MY SOUL WOULD ASCEND INTO HEAVEN ON DECEMBER 25, 2014. BECAUSE OF THIS DELUSION, I DID NOT BELIEVE THAT THE LIFE SENTENCE IMPOSED WAS REAL. — CHIHEB ESSEGHAIER, CONVICTED OF TERRORISM OFFENCES I BELIEVE I WAS UNFIT TO STAND TRIAL.
Reince Priebus spent less than seven months as U.S. President Donald Trump’s top adviser. His departure comes after Trump lost a major legislative battle early Friday when the Senate failed to pass legislation repealing Obamacare.
Chiheb Esseghaier was found guilty of terrorism charges after being accused of plotting to derail a passenger train and sentenced to life in prison.