OTTAWA — A legal dispute about secret information is delaying the trial of a man accused of taking journalist Amanda Lindhout hostage in Somalia nine years ago.
An Ontario Superior Court judge is slated to rule Tuesday whether the criminal trial will begin Thursday or remain on hold — possibly for months — while the wrangling over classified files play out.
Defence counsel told Justice Robert Smith on Monday that Ali Omar Ader cannot get a fair trial at this point because of side proceedings over how much sensitive information can be admitted.
The Federal Court of Canada ruled last week that several classified records related to the case must remain under wraps — a decision Ader's lawyers are challenging in the Federal Court of Appeal.
The Crown, meanwhile, is opposing the defence request for a delay in the criminal trial, which was set to begin Monday.
Lindhout and photographer Nigel Brennan were seized by masked gunmen near Mogadishu in August 2008. Both were released on Nov. 25, 2009.
Ader, a 40-year-old Somalian national, faces a criminal charge of hostage-taking for his alleged role as a negotiator. He was arrested by the RCMP in Ottawa in June 2015.
It emerged during pre-trial motions last spring that the Mounties had lured Ader to Canada through an elaborate scheme to sign a purported book-publishing deal.
Behind the scenes, proceedings have played out in Federal Court over prosecution service concerns about sensitive information that, if disclosed during the trial, could harm international relations, security or defence.
In addition to the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the cyberspies at the Communications Security Establishment, Global Affairs Canada and National Defence were involved in the Canadian response to the kidnapping. Each identified information to be shielded from disclosure.
For instance, the information Global Affairs sought to keep confidential related to the federal government's policy of not paying ransom to terrorists, the identity of third parties that provided information to the department, and Canadian assessments of foreign officials, operations and policies, says the Federal Court ruling handed down last week.
The ruling confirmed that dozens of documents must remain confidential because the competing interests weigh in favour of protecting the information.
Trevor Brown, an Ottawa lawyer representing Ader, told Smith on Monday that an appeal of that ruling should be allowed to fully unfold before a criminal trial begins, since it might dislodge information relevant to Ader's defence.
"The best chance of getting a fair trial is doing it right the first time," Brown said.
Federal lawyer Croft Michaelson told the judge that waiting for the Federal Court of Appeal process to finish could put the criminal proceedings in jeopardy due to unwarranted delay.
Under new rules issued by the Supreme Court, an unreasonable delay is presumed should proceedings — from the criminal charge to conclusion of a trial — exceed 30 months in Superior Court.
The Ader proceedings are now at the 27-month mark.
Michaelson said the appeal over the confidential information has only a "faint hope of success" and, in any event, there is no reason to believe the information in dispute would affect the fairness of a trial.
Trial witnesses are expected from Alberta, the United States, Europe and Australia.
Ader sat expressionless as he listened to a translation of the arguments Monday on a headset in the prisoner's box.
Lindhout, 36, has published a best-selling memoir of her 460 days as a prisoner in which she discusses being sexually assaulted in captivity.
In 2009, the native of Red Deer, Alta., established The Global Enrichment Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering leadership in Somalia through educational and community-based programs.
In recent years she has also written articles and given speeches focusing on forgiveness, compassion, social responsibility and determination.
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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press