Ismael Habib trial: Did RCMP break rules during undercover sting?

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Quebec terror decision lauded as proof Canadian authorities have tools they need

If someone offered you what you wanted most in the world, what would you say to get it?

Ismael Habib's defence lawyer Charles Montpetit argues you'd say anything — which is what he says his client did when he was caught in a Mr. Big-style sting in February 2016.

Habib, 29, is accused of trying to go overseas to commit terrorist acts and of providing false information to obtain a passport. 

In the course of the police sting, he confessed to an undercover agent posing as a crime boss peddling fake passports that once he found a way out of Canada, he planned to go to Syria to fight with ISIS.

Unbeknownst to Habib, his confession was videotaped, and the Crown, led by federal prosecutor Lyne Décarie, aired that tape to bolster its arguments.

Décarie wrapped the Crown's arguments in December. The trial, now in its 11th day, resumed after a month-long break.

The admissibility of the confession is the subject of a voir dire — an inquiry within the trial — to determine whether the judge will consider it as part of the evidence. 

Mr. Big or Mr. Average?

The RCMP undercover operations in Habib's investigation bare all the hallmarks of a classic Mr. Big sting.

A Mr. Big sting sees a suspect slowly integrated with a fictitious crime organization until he or she confesses to have committing a crime.

Mr. Big stings have resulted in hundreds of recorded confessions, often in cold case murders.

However, in 2014, a landmark Supreme Court decision put limits on how police are allowed to use Mr. Big stings.

If Quebec Court Judge Serge Délisle finds the police went beyond those limits in obtaining Habib's taped confession, he could rule that confession inadmissible.

Décarie argues this was not a typical Mr. Big sting — but a toned-down version where the stakes were less high.

"Is this a Mr. Big or a Mr. Average?" she asked rhetorically.

Other Mr. Big stings have included the threat of violence to the subject.

The prosecution has argued that there was no coercion in this operation, and Habib had the opportunity to leave the organized crime group whenever he wanted with no repercussions.

Is poutine a bribe?

In other stings, undercover police offered suspects expensive bribes to keep them co-operating.

In Habib's case, every time undercover officers took him for food, he ate poutine — a meal that only costs a few dollars.

But the defence argues even without the threat of violence or the enticement of cash or pricey gifts, what the fictitious organized crime group was offering Habib was much more valuable to him.

It was an organization that offered fraudulent passports.

Doting dad or ISIS member?

Habib has a wife and two small children overseas. The court has heard repeated testimony that he desperately wanted to go overseas to be with them.

Montpetit is arguing Habib wanted a passport more than anything in the world. After being denied a legal Canadian passport, the court has heard he tried to access illegal documents in order to get out of the country.

Though undercover officers didn't threaten him with violence or entice him with cash, in implying they could help him leave Canada, they were giving him what he wanted more than anything — and Montpetit argued Habib would have said anything to stay on good terms with "the Boss."

"It's exploitation of his desire to leave the country," said Montpetit.

The judge pointed out that Montpetit did not address the fact Habib told undercover agents he only planned to spend two weeks with his family before travelling to fight with ISIS in Syria.

Habib is the first adult in Quebec to be tried under this section of the Anti-Terrorism Act, enacted under the former Conservative government in 2013.