Two men charged in an alleged al-Qaida-supported terror plot to attack a Via Rail passenger train disputed the allegations against them Tuesday as they made their first appearances in court.
Raed Jaser, 35, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, are facing several terrorism charges each in what the RCMP are calling the first known alleged plot in Canada directed by the terrorist organization.
Esseghaier, who appeared in court in Montreal, stood calmly in the witness box and asked to address the court.
"The conclusions were made based on facts and words which are only appearances," he said.
The judge, Pierre Labelle, explained that it wasn't the right venue for his remarks.
The PhD student doing doctoral research on nanosensors is facing five charges, including instructing someone to carry out an activity for the benefit of a terrorist group.
Both he and Jaser are charged with conspiracy to murder for the benefit of a terrorist group, participating in a terrorist group and conspiring to interfere with transportation facilities for the benefit of a terrorist group. Esseghaier faces an additional count of participating in a terrorist group.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
Jaser's lawyer said outside court in Toronto that his client "is in a state of shock and disbelief."
"He denies the allegations and he will vigorously defend them," John Norris said. "Mr. Jaser is presumed innocent of these charges, just as any other person who would be facing such a charge is to be presumed innocent."
Jaser and Esseghaier were arrested and charged Monday in an alleged plot the RCMP said involved "direction and guidance" from al-Qaida members in Iran.
The accused had the capacity to carry out an attack, but there was no "imminent threat" to the public, the RCMP said.
There was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored by Iran, police added.
Tehran denied any links with an alleged plot and said the terrorist network had no presence in Iran.
The country's foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday groups such as al-Qaida have "no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields."
He called the Canadian claims part of Ottawa's hostile policies against Tehran.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations after Canada closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012.
The wording of the charges against the two suspects suggests the RCMP believe the alleged plot was being hatched largely between April 1 and Sept. 25, 2012. The most recent allegations -- Esseghaier's additional charge of participating in a terrorist group -- are listed as ending two months ago, on Feb. 14.
Canadian authorities have not made the nationalities of the two suspects public. Muslim community leaders who were briefed by the RCMP on the arrests were told one is Tunisian and one is from the United Arab Emirates.
But the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Ottawa said in a statement Tuesday neither of the two men were UAE nationals.
Jaser is a permanent resident who has been in Canada for 20 years, Norris said. Esseghaier was doing a doctorate at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Varennes, Que., near Montreal.
-- The Canadian Press