Andrew Chung, Toronto Star, Sat May 12 2012
MONTREAL—The gravity of the actions alleged against four young people accused in connection with Thursday’s subway smoke bombings became much more apparent Saturday with the addition of an anti-terror related charge.
The three women and one man, all in their 20s, will each face a charge of hoax regarding terrorist activity, which carries a maximum prison term of five years, police revealed Saturday. If anyone had been injured during the hoax, the maximum sentence would be 10 years.
They have also been charged with conspiracy and mischief over $5,000. The man has also been charged with possession of a prohibited or restricted weapon, in this case, police said, it was a knife.
All four, who turned themselves in to police Friday afternoon, will appear in court this afternoon via videoconference.
On Thursday, smoke bombs were thrown in three key subway stations, forcing the entire network to shut down at the height of the morning rush hour.
The ensuing transport chaos affected about 200,000 passengers and cost the city more than $10 million in lost economic activity, according to economists.
“They are embarrassed to see their photos in the papers, but they claim their innocence,” Véronique Robert, lawyer for the accused, said Friday in an interview.
“They are nervous,” she added, “but solid.”
According to the Criminal Code, the hoax charge emanates from causing others to fear terrorist activity is occurring, as well as death, bodily harm or property damage.
Both police and politicians were careful on Thursday not to point fingers at students protesting tuition hikes, suggesting it was the work of more radical elements taking advantage of the social climate.
However, at least three of them are students at the Université du Québec à Montréal and have been active in the student strike movement.
Montreal has been the epicentre of the strike, which began as a protest against planned tuition hikes. The class boycotts have lasted more than two months.
Officials are concerned for Montreal’s image and economic well-being as some protests have turned violent, and students have blocked bridges and financial towers. The unrest even prompted the U.S. government to warn American tourists of possible “unforeseen violence” and vandalism.
The main federations have rejected the most recent offer by the government to end the strike.
Police carried out a search Friday morning of the residence of two of the accused, Vanessa L’Écuyer, a sexology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and François-Vivier Gagnon, a sociology major at the same school. They were not in the apartment at the time.
Also charged are Roxanne Belisle and Geneviève Vaillancourt, La Presse has reported. Vaillancourt has held an administrative position since the fall with the sociology students’ association at UQAM.
L’Écuyer is said to belong to a radical student association called the “Force étudiante critique.” The group has characterized as too moderate the work of more mainstream student federations, including one called CLASSE, which has itself been criticized for its calls for civil disobedience and its refusals to denounce violence.
Members of this group, some wearing masks and hoodies, loudly disrupted a recent press conference given by the other associations.
Following the subway sabotage, police quickly published photos of the suspects. They were taken, following the incident, by a citizen who also gave police a sworn statement.
At the Université du Québec à Montréal on Friday, fellow students in the Hubert-Aquin pavilion, which houses several social science departments including sociology, said it was hard to believe someone they know could have been involved.
“I work with her,” one student said, referring to L’Écuyer.
“I find it astounding that she could be involved. It’s pathetic what people are saying about her,” said the woman, who refused to give her name. She said L’Écuyer was very involved in the student strike, but “so are all of us.
“I’m outraged that the media has published her name.”
Another man, who also refused to give his name, said those implicated in the incident were “not more radical than anyone else here.”
A common refrain was also the idea that the sabotage “didn’t hurt anyone” and didn’t compare to the violence committed against students by police during protests.
Graffiti lines the hallways around the second-floor café at the university, and the majority of it is highly political.
The anti-capitalist messages and anarchy symbols have multiplied since the student protest began, several students said.
“Revolt!” one says, atop the anarchist “A” symbol. Another message states: “On the one hand we want to live communism, on the other we want to spread anarchy.”
The Université du Québec à Montréal has always been considered the Quebec institution with the highest concentration of leftist and ultra-leftist students and faculty.
Three students from France studying legal sciences said they were surprised by the level of political activism.
“They are very politically engaged,” said Sophie Lecomte. “It’s clear that their struggle is beyond tuition. It’s about society.”