TORONTO, Set 25 (Reuters) Canada's government took the surprise step of halting a preliminary hearing for 14 men accused of plotting bomb attacks in Canadian cities for fear the process would balloon into separate trials and compromise national security, an expert in criminal law said today.
In a rare direct indictment, prosecutors yesterday cut short the preliminary hearing for the 14 nearly four months after it began, and pushed directly to a trial.
''It was required in the public interest to prefer indictments, ending the preliminary inquiry and proceeding directly to trial at this time,'' the Attorney General's office said in a statement.
The men, along with four youths, were arrested last summer and charged with several terror-related offenses in a case that gripped Canada. Charges included knowingly belonging to a terrorist organization, and plotting to cause an explosion.
''I think the predominant objective here would be to keep a mega trial from turning into two mega trials,'' said David Paciocco, a professor of criminal law at the University of Ottawa.
''You've got a huge number of accused with a really complicated number of charges. With all of those lawyers, it's just going to take forever.'' Police have said the men tried to buy three tonnes of what they thought was ammonium nitrate, a bomb-making ingredient used in the 1995 Oklahoma City blast that killed 168 people.
A sweeping publication ban means the press cannot report evidence from the preliminary hearings, which aimed to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant trial.
Paciocco noted that only about 10 per cent of Canadian trials include a preliminary hearing, and a direct indictment can happen in complicated cases, especially those concerning national security.
But defense lawyers have accused the prosecution of disrupting the preliminary trial just as police informant Mubin Shaikh was testifying. Newspapers quoted several as saying the prosecution bailed itself out of a hearing that wasn't going as planned.
Thomas Walkom wrote in the Toronto Star: ''Was something about to be revealed in court that the government didn't want anyone to hear? Was the Crown getting nervous about its informant?'' The halt meant the accused men were rearrested yesterday and charges were stayed. Some charges were dropped and others were added, and the suspects will have to seek new bail hearings, while the defense will receive documents that outline the full prosecution case.
Police have said members of the group discussed bombing targets that allegedly included the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the national spy agency.
One allegedly talked of storming the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and taking legislators hostage to try to force the government to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan.
Reuters KK VP0110