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Trial asks whether a mentally ill man can commit a terrorist act

Published on April 15, 2018 by   ·   No Comments


By ROSIE DIMANNOStar Columnist
Sunday April 15, 2018

I have a licence to kill. I have a green light to kill. One soldier is all it takes. Just one.”Ayanle Hassan Ali, a 30-year-old Canadian born to Somali immigrant parents, is charged with several attempted murder and assault charges. He is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Forensic psychiatrists called to a Toronto courtroom this week by both prosecution and defence agree on this central point.

— From the diary of Ayanle Hassan Ali

“I intended to go somewhere today but was stopped because I didn’t have socks. Something as simple as clothing worn on my feet kept me home. Was I being melodramatic? No, because I was willing to even don a substandard sock, but was without a pair. ‘Sock Sharaf’ as I like to call it, is a feeling of pride that I get when I have clean socks. A lot can be gauged about a person from their socks.”

— From the diary of Ayanle Hassan Ali

There is no dispute that Ayanle Hassan Ali walked into a military recruitment centre in North York on March 14, 2016, and attacked several soldiers, swinging a kitchen knife.

It’s right there in the agreed statement of facts between prosecution and defence.

Was it a terrorist act? Certainly, jihadists who cleave to a war between civilizations — Muslims versus infidels — and have embraced a death cult obsession operate as if granted licence to kill, to maim, to wreak havoc. Radical Islamist websites urge believers to drive vehicles into crowds of innocents, to commit suicide bombings, to take up whatever weapon is at hand and slay even one kafir. Thus is global terrorism sowed.

Crazy to most of us. Rational to them.

But Ali, a 30-year-old Canadian born to Somali immigrant parents, is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Forensic psychiatrists called to a Toronto courtroom this week by both prosecution and defence agree on this central point.

The defendant’s symptoms first began to appear in late adolescence and had completely overwhelmed him on that March day, when he left his Etobicoke home with the intention of achieving martyrdom.

He heard voices sending him messages, suggestions. The TV spoke to him. The radio spoke to him. Government agencies were monitoring his thoughts. He believed himself possessed by jinns, malevolent spirits.

His mother long ago was diagnosed with schizophrenia, too, a mental illness with hereditary links.

Anti-psychotic drugs, administered since his arrest and hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, have eased Ali’s symptoms. His thoughts are no longer wildly disorganized. He doesn’t spend hours staring at the wall. The voices in his head have quietened. But in the expert opinion of psychiatrists, he is still far from well.

Well enough to stand trial, though — originally, in 2016, he was deemed unfit on a treatment order — now understanding the severity of the charges against him and the judicial process. It is a fairly low legal threshold.

And none of it — the delusions, the hallucinations, the feeling of persecution, the agitation and confusion and withdrawal from all normal social involvement — means, definitively, that Ali could not have simultaneously held terrorist beliefs nor radicalized himself by adopting the violent urgings he sought out on terrorist websites.

It is such a fine distinction, a blurring of illness and corrosive ideology.

Ali has 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 (the knife) for the purpose of committing an offense, all “for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group.”

Except prosecutors have never been able to identify this terrorist group or any evidence that Ali had a connection with such an organization.

Defence lawyers are arguing that Ali should be found not criminally responsible (NCR) for the lesser and included offences — attempted murder, assault, the weapons offence — but that the acts were not committed with any relation to a terrorist group. They are seeking acquittal on the terrorism-related charges. The prosecution — federal Crowns — want Ali found not criminally responsible for the terrorism offences.

The Crown’s forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Klassen, took the stand on Thursday, qualified to give expert opinion evidence devolving from some 41/2 hours of interviews with the defendant, plus a review of the compendious medical and case files. “I did find forming an opinion about Mr. Ali challenging,” he admitted. Adding: “I think this man had descended into the burden of illness that he had.”

He said Ali should be found NCR for his actions due to serious mental health issues.

Throughout the direct and cross examinations, Ali sat without expression in the dock, hands folded together. The anti-psychotic drugs have caused him to gain some 80 pounds. Behind him were the three sisters who Klassen said he leaned on heavily for an understanding of their brother and the family’s escalating crisis.

It is a sad story. Mental illness is not a choice.

At the time of the attack, Klassen said, Ali believed himself morally justified. As Klassen wrote in his psychological assessment, of asking Ali whether he would engage in similar behaviour today: “I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Not exactly a stirring rejection of his criminal act.

But it appears Ali, said Klassen, was “using religion to restore order to his mind — in some sense becoming the hero of his own story instead of the victim of his story.”

Would he be a risk to public safety, asked Crown attorney Sarah Egan. “Left to his own devices, Mr. Ali would probably stop the medication.” The psychosis now under control would return. Without those restraints, “I think he is a significant threat to public safety.”

Neither Klassen, nor probably anyone, could firmly establish where the psychosis ended and the violent jihadist beliefs to which Ali subscribed at the height of his illness began. Though both were intertwined. “I have an imperfect understanding of the relationship between those sentiments and schizophrenia.”

Justice Ian Macdonnell has yet to rule on this phase of the trial.

Defence lawyers Nader Hasan and Maureen Addie told reporters afterward that Ali is simply not a terrorist and shouldn’t be prosecuted under Section 83.2 of the Criminal Code: Anyone who commits an indictable offence “for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to imprisonment for life.”

“He’s someone who is mentally ill. And sometimes a mentally ill guy waving around a knife is really just that — a mentally ill guy waving around a knife.’’

Hasan said the defence is worried that, if Ali is found not criminally responsible on terrorism, it “might effect his treatment going forward.”

“Because this is so unusual. It’s never happened before, that’s someone been found NCR on terrorism,” under Section 83.2, which Hasan argues is intended for a narrow group.

“We don’t think the Crown’s case holds water because they’ve charged him with committing this indictable offence for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group. But there is no group. They didn’t find any such connection. The Crown’s theory is he’s a terrorist group of one, that one being himself. We don’t think, as a matter of interpretation, that’s how Parliament intended this provision to work. This was a provision aimed at dealing with terrorist groups. That doesn’t mean that you can’t commit terrorist offense acting entirely alone but this particular provision is about committing violent acts or other crimes for terrorist groups.”

Hasan added: “Let’s be clear. We’re not asking for an outright acquittal. We’re asking for acquittal on terrorism and NCR on the underlying acts of violence. So we’re not saying he should just walk out of here a free man. The included offences — that’s what he did. And that’s what he lacked the criminal responsibility to do.”

Ali, who wanted to kill a soldier yet couldn’t leave his house one day because of unmatched socks, returns to court on April 20.

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