The Canadian Press, Chris Young, Associated Press
TORONTO — A suspect accused of plotting with al-Qaida to derail a train in Canada said Tuesday authorities were basing their conclusions on mere appearances, in a case that prompted Iran to immediately distance itself from allegations that the terror network was operating in the country.
Canadian investigators say Raed Jaser, 35, and his suspected accomplice Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, received "directions and guidance" from members of al-Qaida in Iran. Iran denied any involvement and said groups such as al-Qaida do not share Iran's ideology.
Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police said it was the first known attack planned by al-Qaida in Canada.
In a brief court appearance in Montreal, a bearded Esseghaier declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. He made a brief statement in French in which he called the allegations against him unfair.
"The conclusions were made based on acts and words which are only appearances," he said in a calm voice after asking permission to speak.
Jaser appeared in court earlier Tuesday in Toronto and did not enter a plea. He and was given a new court date of May 23. He had a long beard and wore a black shirt with no tie, and was accompanied by his parents and brother. The court granted a request by his lawyer, John Norris, for a publication ban on future evidence and testimony.
"I don't know nothing. Let the police do their job," his father, Mohammed Jaser, said outside the courtroom in a crush of journalists.
The men's case has raised questions about the extent of Shiite-led Iran's relationship with the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network. Relations between the two have been rocky for many years, but some al-Qaida members were allowed to stay in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan following the U.S. led invasion there. Iran watched them carefully and limited their movements.
U.S. intelligence officials track limited al-Qaida activity inside Iran. Remnants of al-Qaida's so-called management council are still there, though they are usually kept under virtual house arrest by the Iranian regime There are also a small number of financiers and facilitators who help move money, and sometimes weapons and people throughout the region from their base in Iran.
Last fall, the Obama administration offered up to $12 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of two al-Qaida leaders based in Iran. The U.S. State Department described them as key facilitators in sending extremists to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Treasury Department also announced financial penalties against one of the men.
Officials in Canada said Jaser and Esseghaier had "direction and guidance" from al-Qaida members in Iran but no financial assistance, and there was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday that groups such as al-Qaida have "no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields."
"We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people," he said.
Mehmanparast called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran, and accused Canada of indirectly aiding al-Qaida by joining Western support for Syrian rebels. Some Islamic militant factions, claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, have joined forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar Assad, one of Iran's main allies in the region.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations after Canada unilaterally closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012 and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.
Police said the men are not Canadian citizens and had been in Canada a "significant amount of time," but declined to say where they were from or why they were in the country.
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