TORONTO – A man with schizophrenia who attacked soldiers at a military recruitment centre in Toronto was acquitted of terror charges and found not criminally responsible for lesser offences on Monday as a judge ruled his actions didn’t fit the intended scope of the country’s terrorism laws.
Ayanle Hassan Ali’s radical religious and ideological beliefs were largely the result of his mental illness, Judge Ian MacDonnell found as he ordered the 30-year-old to remain at a forensic psychiatry unit while plans for his care could be determined.
“While it is common ground that the defendant had become radicalized, there is no evidence of any connection between him and any other person or group in relation to the attack,” MacDonnell said. “The intention of Parliament in enacting (the relevant terror legislation) was ? not to capture the kind of lone-wolf criminal behaviour engaged in by the defendant,” he added.
Ali’s attack was nonetheless a “deeply disturbing assault on one of the pillars of Canadian peace and security,” MacDonnell said, as he found him not criminally responsible for attempted murder, assault and weapons offences.
At least two military personnel were left with minor injuries after Ali entered a recruitment centre in north Toronto in March 2016 and began slashing at people with a kitchen knife.
Ali had pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder, three counts of assault with a weapon, two counts of assault causing bodily harm and one count of carrying a weapon for the purpose of committing an offence, all in association with, for the benefit, or at the direction of a terror organization.
His lawyers said their client should never have faced terror charges which, by definition, require that the accused commits an offence “for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with” a terror group.
“This was a case where the Crown overreached,” defence attorney Nader Hasan said outside court. “They had someone who they thought looked the part of the terrorist when, in reality, they had someone who committed a terrible, terrible act who is mentally ill and they should have proceeded in that fashion, rather than overreaching for terrorism.”
Hasan and his co-counsel Maureen Addie argued that because Ali committed his actions alone and had never been in contact with any terror groups, he should be found not guilty on the terror charges and ruled “not criminally responsible” for the lesser included offences. That designation acknowledges the accused committed an offence but, as a result of a mental disorder, could not appreciate the consequences, legality or moral wrongness of their actions.
The prosecution argued at trial that Canadian terror laws could apply to Ali because he acted as a “terrorist group of one.”
Hasan said he hopes Ali’s case leads to a reexamination of Canadian terror laws and how they are applied.
“The definition of terrorism and terrorist activity in … Canadian law is extremely broad and when laws are extremely broad the result is that it’s left almost entirely up to the Crown to decide when they get used,” Hasan said. “The history of these terrorist provisions being used in Canada have been one where they happen to be used far more frequently when the individual accused is of Arab or African or Muslim descent (like Ali).”
Ali appeared in court in the same grey suit and white checked shirt he has worn on every day of the trial. Sitting in the accused’s box, he kept his head bowed and his hands clasped together as MacDonnell delivered his decision.
MacDonnell said he agreed with two psychiatrists who testified at trial that Ali should be found not criminally responsible for his actions.
Defence witness Dr. Gary Chaimowitz, who has supervised Ali’s care since 2016, and Crown witness Dr. Philip Klassen, who met with Ali for hours and reviewed his files, both told the court Ali had shown signs of schizophrenia, including delusions and paranoia, for several years before the attack.
Ali believed around the time of the attack that the government was listening to him, and that he was being possessed by spirits from Muslim mythology known as Jinns, the doctors told the court.
Ali became angry over Canadian military involvement in Muslim countries and came to feel that if he martyred himself all his sins would be forgiven in the afterlife, the doctors said.
MacDonnell ordered that Ali remain at a forensic psychiatry unit in Hamilton – where he has been in custody for most of the past two years – until the Ontario Review Board, comprised of mental health and legal specialists, can determine his course of care. The board has 45 days to hold an initial hearing in the case, in accordance with Ontario law.