Mentally ill, found guilty of terrorism: What happens to Chiheb Esseghaier?

Sept. 1, 2015 – Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News

A courtroom debate on the fate of a mentally ill man found guilty of terrorism was interrupted by saliva projectiles Wednesday.

Chiheb Esseghaier, apparently outraged at the temerity of a forensic psychiatrist discussing Esseghaier’s mental state, spat three times in the general direction of the psychiatrist, the judge and a coterie of lawyers.

“This is not 2015! You are lying,” Esseghaier shouted, standing and gesturing at those assembled in court. It must be 2014, he said, because he’s still alive: According to the Koran, he’ll die in December, 2014.

“You are repeating ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘mental illness’! These are lies!”

Esseghaier eventually sat down when Judge Michael Code agreed to give him plenty of time to respond to the psychiatrist’s testimony later.

But he was on his feet again that afternoon, yelling throwing a plastic cup of water at the amicus lawyer appointed to make arguments on his behalf (Esseghaier has insisted on representing himself).

It was an emotional punctuation to a day spent discussing the difference between mental illness and mental illness so severe it prevents a person from participating in a court proceeding; and the fine line between extreme zealotry and insanity.

Forensic psychiatrist Phil Klassen was asked to do a second assessment of Esseghaier’s mental fitness after explosive testimony from another forensic psychiatrist, Lisa Ramshaw, who said Esseghaier was “actively psychotic” to the point where he could not adequately participate in his sentencing.

“I would agree with Dr. Ramshaw that this man suffers from a mental illness,” Klassen said, but “I am not persuaded that he is unfit.”

“It seems (Esseghaier) is aware of the possible consequences of these proceedings,” Klassen said, adding that “an accused person does not need to be capable of making rational decisions.”

Klassen admitted his assessment was limited by Esseghaier’s refusal to participate: He had to review existing records and never met or spoke with Esseghaier.

Now Esseghaier and his co-accused Raed Jaser could be sentenced on a slew of terror charges – including conspiracy to commit murder.

But the lawyers acting as amicus curiae on Esseghaier’s behalf in court want him to get treatment first. And they think he should be assessed to see whether he was too sick to have committed the crimes of which he was found guilty.

“Given the likelihood that Esseghaier’s offending behaviour and ‘radicalization’ were substantially driven by his emerging mental illness,” their submission reads, “this court ought not to sentence him until the connection between his offending behaviour and his mental illness can be further explored and understood.

“This can only occur if Esseghaier’s mental illness is treated.”

One major question remaining is how much of the change in Esseghaier’s behaviour in the years leading up to his arrest was terrorist radicalization, and how much was illness.

“Everyone says there was a change in (Esseghaier). … You have some saying he’s radicalized, you have some saying he’s unwell,” Klassen said.

“Is it a radicalization and an illness? Are they part of the same change? I’m not sure.”

A Toronto courtroom Wednesday debated the fate of a man found guilty of serious terror charges but who suffers from a mental illness so severe he may not be fit to be sentenced and may not even be criminally responsible for the crimes he committed.

Scroll down for our live blog from the courtroom

A jury found Esseghaier and his co-accused Jaser guilty of multiple terror charges, including conspiracy to commit murder, this past spring. Since then, however, an experienced forensic psychiatrist found Esseghaier to be “actively psychotic,” likely schizophrenic and unable to participate in court proceedings.

READ MORE: Psychiatrist’s explosive testimony could derail Via terror trial

Ramshaw’s testimony earlier this summer derailed the high-profile Via terror trial, forcing those involved — and those following the story in Canada and abroad — to question how the justice system and a society ought to deal with someone found guilty of serious crimes even as he suffered serious illness.

Over the course of several years, Esseghaier went from being a promising graduate student to effectively homeless and, according to his fellow students, increasingly erratic as he espoused more extreme religious views.

Ramshaw told the court Esseghaier spent several years in a worsening spiral of schizophrenia.

“It’s not rare,” Ramshaw told Global News, for people in that state “to gravitate toward religion to feel better.”

Over the the course of the trial Esseghaier has communicated his contempt for “man-made” law, his intention to convert those in court to Islam prior to a pending apocalypse and an antipathy toward the number three.

Justice Michael Code made clear he doesn’t agree with Ramshaw’s assessment, at least not with her finding that Esseghaier isn’t fit.

So he ordered a second assessment, conducted by Klassen.

While Klassen said he finds Esseghaier fit to be sentenced this case is still in uncharted legal waters.

Esseghaier has no lawyer because he insisted on representing himself. But a court-appointed “amicus curiae,” Russell Silverstein and Ingrid Grant, could still ask Code for an assessment determining whether Esseghaier was criminally responsible when he was conspiring to blow up a train.

Or they could ask Code to have Esseghaier hospitalized and treated.

“Esseghaier, at this point, in some way, shape or form, should get some treatment,” Klassen said Wednesday.

But it isn’t clear how or where this would happen. Given that Esseghaier strenuously objects to being characterized as ill, Klassen admitted, “the chance of him taking medication voluntarily would be very low.”

When he was given the chance to speak Wednesday, Esseghaier went into detail outlining his perceived similarities to Jesus and the biblical prophet Joseph.

Whatever happens, questions around Esseghaier’s mental state have implications not only for his fate, but for that of his co-accused: Jaser’s lawyer could very well question the legitimacy of his client’s trial and guilty finding, given that the person with whom he supposedly conspired may have been too sick to do any conspiring.

Jaser’s lawyer John Norris has called the case “utterly unprecedented.”

These uncomfortable questions come up as terror investigations in both Canada and the U.S. are coming under fire for their alleged targeting of vulnerable people. The FBI, whose undercover agent played a seminal role in the Via terror investigation,has come under fire from Human Rights Watch for a series of prosecutions that targeted individuals with severe mental illness.

“We’ve documented cases of the FBI knowing someone suffered from a mental illness and continuing to pursue them anyway. … The same sorts of allegations are popping up in the Canadian cases,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Washington director Andrea Prasow.

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