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Canada Prosecutors drop Montreal Mafia cases after questions about RCMP surveillance tactics

Mario Desmarais, left, with the Montreal Police Department and Michel Arcand with the RCMP speak to reporters during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Montreal on June 12, 2014, where they spoke about Project Clemenza, a major sweep of two alleged organized crime groups operating in the province.

GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Crown lawyers have mysteriously walked away from charges against 35 alleged associates of the Montreal Mafia. The development is a new setback for a once-promising prosecution, but allows federal authorities to sidestep questions about police surveillance gear.

At Montreal's Palais de Justice on Tuesday, prosecutors announced without explanation that the defendants, who had faced drugs, weapons and kidnapping charges, would be let go. Outside court, Crown lawyer Sabrina Delli Fraine would not explain the precise reasoning, but said questions "have been raised, among other things, about the techniques that were used by the RCMP in the course of their investigation."

Project Clemenza was a technologically advanced investigation led by Mountie detectives with Quebec police. The marathon probe lasted from 2010 to 2016 and aimed to cripple feuding organized-crime factions. Police felt so optimistic midway through that they even held a news conference boasting they had intercepted more than a million supposedly secure electronic messages sent on BlackBerrys.

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But now, only 11 suspects remain before the courts. Prosecutors could revive cases within the year against the 35 people whose charges were stayed this week, although that prospect is remote.

The case began unravelling a year ago, when six of the accused gangsters took a plea deal on the eve on their trial for first-degree murder in connection with the shooting death of a rival.

Related: Montreal police official suspended amid abuse of power allegations in the force

Prosecutors offered them relatively light sentences on murder-conspiracy charges. The bargain was struck last March after their criminal lawyers raised a litany of questions about how the RCMP got inside the suspects' smartphones. The suspects had been trying to escape scrutiny by using multiple BlackBerrys not in their own names to send each other encoded messages.

The Crown resisted disclosing the methods. Then, in pretrial hearings, Quebec Superior Court Justice Michael Stober rejected the Crown's claim that police were not legally required to reveal the techniques. "The interests of the accused in having a fair trial where the accused is able to make full answer and defence outweighs the public interest in protecting police-investigative techniques," he wrote.

That led to the first public disclosures that Canadian police were using machines called IMSI catchers that imitate cellphone towers and can trick smartphones in a targeted area into giving up information that identifies the devices.

Police obtained a judicially authorized "assistance order" that required BlackBerry Ltd., which had built its brand on secure messaging, to enter into a kind of a partnership with the Mounties. Copies of messages the suspects had sent via their phones believing they were secure were relayed to authorities as they transited the company's corporate servers. Police unscrambled the messages with a global decryption key.

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The disclosures also revealed that the RCMP officers' superiors instructed them to use the IMSI catchers for only a few minutes at a time before switching them off. The fear was that the devices could interfere with 911 calls placed by people in the area of the surveillance.

The other accused from Project Clemenza watched the disclosure fight last year, and some made their own bids for more information. However, Ms. Delli Fraine said on Tuesday that the Crown is "still not in a position to respond to their requests."

Disclosure battles are time-consuming, and outside court on Tuesday, Ms. Delli Fraine said one factor in the Crown's decision to stay the 35 cases was a recent Supreme Court decision that set time limits for getting cases through the justice system.

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