BRAMPTON, Ontario (Reuters) – One member of an alleged al Qaeda-inspired terror ring arrested in Canada last weekend faces the accusation that he sought to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his lawyer said on Tuesday.
The man, Steven Chand, 25, was among 15 members of the alleged ring who appeared in a heavily guarded courtroom northwest of Toronto on Tuesday to set dates for bail hearings.
“There’s an allegation apparently that my client personally indicated that he wanted to behead the prime minister of Canada,” Chand’s lawyer, Gary Batasar, told reporters.
Canadian police arrested 17 Muslim men, five of whom are under the age of 18, on Friday and Saturday in Canada’s largest counterterrorism operation. Several of them are charged with plotting bombings in major Canadian cities and training militants. Police said more arrests are possible.
Batasar said his client faces several serious charges and said he was concerned that intense media interest in the details of the case in Canada and the United States could jeopardize Chand’s chances of a fair trial.
According to a synopsis of charges that Batasar said he saw, members of the group are alleged to have considered plans to take hostages and to attack the Canadian parliament in Ottawa with the aim of trying to force the government to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. building in Toronto and power grids were also alleged targets, he said.
The accused men, wearing white T-shirts and gray sweat pants, were escorted into the small courtroom a few at a time, shackled together. About 20 family members sat together while more than two dozen others, mostly media, crammed inside.
Snipers were on the roofs of nearby buildings and police cradled guns beside an airport-style security checkpoint.
Defense lawyers succeeded in having bail hearings postponed, saying they had yet to gain adequate access to their clients or the evidence.
Most of the accused will appear June 12 to set bail hearing dates, while one, Shareef Abdelhaleen, 30, will appear at a bail hearing July 4.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say the men took delivery of three tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be mixed with fuel oil to produce a powerful explosive.
That’s more fertilizer than was used to build the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 people.
Other charges include trying to build bombs and training, or being trained, as terrorists, court documents say.
John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, speaking on Fox News, pointed out on Tuesday that the arrests followed two years of police surveillance including wiretaps, observation and tracing of Internet usage.
“I hope the American public as a whole understands why these steps are being taken (in the United States), not to invade their privacy, not to find out things about legitimate activities, but to uncover these terrorist networks,” he said.
President George W. Bush authorized domestic eavesdropping without a court order shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Canadian newspapers said the men had a training camp in a wooded area north of Toronto.
The accused were being held in solitary confinement and were barred from seeing family members or praying as a group. Lawyers also complained they were unable to see their clients without an armed guard within earshot.
“There’s no possible way that you can either counsel your client, nor is it possible in these circumstances to receive clear unambiguous instruction from your client,” said Arif Raza, lawyer for Saad Khalid, 19.
The men and youths arrested were all Canadian citizens or Canadian residents. Seven worshiped at the same mosque and two were already in jail on weapons charges.
Muslims make up some 2 percent of Canada’s population of 33 million, and leaders fear the arrests will spark attacks on their community.