The lawyer for a Toronto man accused of leaving Canada to join ISIS says Pamir Hakimzadah was being investigated for terrorism as far back as 2016, calling it "suspect" that authorities waited until now to charge him.
"We're in a culture where anyone could be charged with terrorism. It is a serious count," his lawyer Rishma Gupta told reporters after he appeared in court Thursday.
Hakimzadah, 27, appeared in court following a national security investigation dubbed Project Sachet, which the RCMP said began in January 2016. It was at that time, Gupta said, that she first learned from the Crown that her client was being investigated for terrorism.
In June 2016, Hakimzadah was arrested by Toronto police on charges of assault, assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats. He's remained in custody ever since.
"They didn't lay this charge until just yesterday, and that to me is something that's suspect," said Gupta.
He has been charged with one count of leaving Canada on or about Oct. 22, 2014, for the purpose of participating in the activity in a terrorist group, his lawyer told CBC Toronto.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada would not comment on Hakimzadah's status, citing privacy laws, but Gupta confirmed he is a Canadian citizen.
'He's upset. They're serious charges'
RCMP allege Hakimzadah travelled to Turkey in the fall of 2014 with the intention of joining ISIS and participating in terrorist activity. Turkish authorities detained Hakimzadah and he was returned to Canada.
Hakimzadah, who appeared in court wearing faded blue jeans and a grey sweater, said nothing more than his name, but Gupta said he was "shocked" at the situation. "He's upset. They're serious charges."
Phil Gurski, a former strategic analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said Hakimzadah's case could set a new precedent, as he believes it's the first time terrorism charges have been laid against a Canadian who has returned from overseas.
"People who've returned to date, to the best of my knowledge, no one has been charged with a terrorism offence," Gurski said. "Some have been charged with passport fraud or misrepresentation."
There have been charges laid against individuals leaving Canada, but "this is the first one that I'm aware of someone who is returning, or in this case, having been returned by an allied service, i.e. the [Turkish authorities]," Gurski said.
Under the current legislation, an individual can be charged with leaving or attempting to leave the country with the intent of committing an act of terrorism. Acts committed outside Canada can be prosecuted and facilitating terrorism in another country is also illegal.
"This in fact might set legal precedent in this country," Gurski said.
Tools to deal with 'terrorist travel'
On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters that there are several tools available to authorities to deal with "terrorist travel."
"No-fly lists are part of the apparatus. There's also the authority to remove passports, and in the appropriate circumstances where the investigation leads to this conclusion, to lay criminal charges," Goodale said.
For Aleemudin Syed, director of the Darul Khair Islamic Centre in the Flemingdon Park area, which Hakimzadah attended, news of the charge came as a shock.
"It's unbelievable," Syed told CBC Toronto. "He was just a regular person coming and going," he said, adding that Hakimzadah seemed to be a "very nice, polite guy," who never seemed to argue with anybody.
The last time Syed saw Hakimzadah at the mosque was about a year ago, and he never had any concerns about him, he said.
Canadian Council of Imams vice-chair Yusuf Badat said in a statement Wednesday that he was relieved to hear about the arrest. But he said the real fight has to start before people become radicalized enough to head overseas to join extremist groups.
"If we can prevent and stop, wherever possible, any kind of intent of this nature, it's far better," Badat said.
The RCMP say they worked with the Toronto Police Service on the investigation and maintain that at no time was there a risk to public safety.
But in a release Thursday, the Mounties asked citizens to "remain vigilant" and report any information they may have on terrorism or suspicious activity to the National Security Information Network at 1-800-420-5805.
Hakimzadah is due back in court on April 26.