Charge dropped for man accused of flying 'terrorist flag'

Demonstrators march as part of a rally in support of Palestinians in downtown Toronto on Dec. 23, 2023. A hate-motivated charge against a man who allegedly held a flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in a rally in January was dropped on Friday, according to court documents. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A charge against a Toronto man accused of flying what police called a "terrorist flag" at a pro-Palestinian demonstration earlier this year has been withdrawn.

A 41-year-old man was charged with publicly inciting hatred after marching down Queen Street W. and Bay Street on Jan. 7, allegedly waving the flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The organization is listed as a terrorist group by Public Safety Canada, which says it seeks "the destruction of the State of Israel and the establishment of a communist government in Palestine."

The man's lawyer, Shane Martínez, said the charge was withdrawn by assistant Crown Attorney Patrick Clement because there was "no reasonable prospect of conviction." CBC Toronto reviewed court documents indicating the charge was dropped Friday.

Martínez says the force's case hinged on the flag belonging to a group listed by the federal government as a terrorist group, which in and of itself isn't enough evidence for a conviction.

"It shows that the police acted not on a legal basis but on a political basis," he told CBC Toronto.

"Those who are attending protests in solidarity with Palestine and in solidarity with the people of Gaza come from many different backgrounds. And what we see is a very troubling trend in the city of the police treating these demonstrators in a different manner than they would treat demonstrators in other circumstances."

Police will continue 'enforcing hate crime laws'

In an email statement, Toronto police said it respects and supports decisions by the Crown, but said its ruling "in no way means that police did not have reasonable grounds to lay the charge or that the allegations against this individual were "unfounded.""

"The Toronto Police Service investigates hate crimes and pursues charges where appropriate and where the grounds exist," police said. "We will persist in enforcing hate crime laws and laying charges when justified, ensuring the safety and security of our communities."

Police also provided part of the Crown's reasons for withdrawing the charge, which said there was a lack of reasonable prospect of conviction because it "cannot prove the mental element of this offence, namely the intent to incite hatred against any one or group by displaying this flag nor that it occurred to [the accused] that it might incite hatred."

LISTEN | Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw identifies 'terrorist flag':

Crown warns of possible further arrests

However, Clement did say Torontonians should be "put on notice" that flying this flag, or one of any terrorist or hate group, may "very well be met with further arrests" depending on the context.

"Whether intended or not by the person carrying the flag or symbol, the reality is that these symbols can incite hatred against the group that the particular terrorist organization or hate group has targeted either currently or in the past. In the end, words and symbols can have ugly and illegal consequences."

Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw previously called the charge "unprecedented," noting the "very high threshold" to charge anyone with a hate propaganda offence. Experts previously told CBC News the incident would be difficult to prosecute as a hate crime.

Toronto Police Service handout
Toronto Police Service handout

Martínez said his client, a single father, was the subject of "racism and online abuse" as a result of the charge and police not revealing what the flag was right away, leading the public to speculate.

"There was no reasonable prospect of conviction, but [the accused] was left to suffer the consequences," Martínez said.

Martínez said he's working on other cases that have risen out of similar protests. He said moving forward, the dropped charge serves as a reminder that people can't take what police say at "face value."

"We need to make sure that what is given the most attention and the most prioritization is the presumption of innocence," he said.