Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL

Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

The man who murdered six people in a Quebec City mosque in 2017 will be eligible to apply for parole in 25 years rather than 40, the province’s highest court ruled Thursday as it declared the section of the Criminal Code allowing consecutive life sentences unconstitutional.

Alexandre Bissonnette, 30, was sentenced in February 2019 to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years.

That parole eligibility period has been reduced to 25 years in Thursday’s Quebec Court of Appeal decision, which took issue with a 2011 amendment to the Criminal Code that allowed life sentences to be served one after another rather than concurrently, as was previously the case.

The three-judge panel wrote that while a decision to set parole eligibility at 100 or more years “may give some people a sense of satisfaction,” it is “grossly disproportionate” because it exceeds the person’s expected lifespan.

“It contemplates a possibility that will never be able to come to fruition,” the decision read. “This is why the provision is absurd and constitutes an attack on human dignity.”

Bissonnette pleaded guilty in March 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder. His murder victims were Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39. In addition to the men killed, five others were struck by bullets.

Witnesses to the crime described the former student, then 27, entering the Islamic Cultural Centre and calmly opening fire on the crowd gathered for evening prayers.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot concluded last year that the consecutive sentencing provision, which would have allowed him to sentence Bissonnette to 150 years in prison, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

But he also decided that 25 years was too little for Bissonnette, who he said was driven by “racism and hatred” when he stormed the mosque.

In the end, he sentenced Bissonnette to concurrent life sentences for five murders, and on the sixth added 15 years to bring the total to 40.

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown, who argued for parole eligibility of 25 years and 50 years, respectively.

On Thursday, the Appeal Court agreed with Huot that the consecutive sentencing provision violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they decided that the judge had erred in rewriting the law to allow for a 40-year period.

They said that with the provision of the Criminal Code invalidated, the sentence must be imposed according to the law as it stood before 2011, meaning Bissonnette can apply for parole after 25 years in prison.

Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times and left paralyzed from the waist down in the attack, described the reduced sentence as “unjust.”

In a brief phone interview, he noted that several recent Canadian mass murderers have received consecutive sentences, including Justin Bourque, who cannot apply for parole for 75 years after killing three RCMP officers and wounding two others in a 2014 shooting in Moncton, N.B.

“Why will (Bissonnette), who killed six in a such a massacre, have 25 years?” Derbali said in a phone interview.

Yusuf Faqiri, a representative of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, described the decision as a “travesty of justice.”

“Our hearts are breaking,” he said in a phone interview, adding that the decision was particularly hard for the families of the victims.

“One of the questions many Quebec Muslims are asking today is whether the blood of Quebec Muslims is worth less.”

In the ruling, the panel said the reduced sentence was not a judgment on the horror of Bissonnette’s actions on Jan. 29, 2017 but rather on the constitutionality of the law.

“In Canada, even the worst criminal having committed the most heinous of crimes benefits at all times from the rights guaranteed under the charter,” the decision reads.

The judges also noted that setting Bissonnette’s parole eligibility at 25 years does not mean he will automatically be allowed to walk free at that time, or ever, since his sentence is for life.

Debra Parkes, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said she believes the Quebec court is the first one to declare the law unconstitutional. Other Canadian courts that have considered the issue have declined to invalidate the law because judges are not mandated to apply it, she said.

Quebec, instead, looked at whether consecutive sentences are “cruel and unusual” by their very nature, in part because they discount the possibility of rehabilitation, she said.

“I think this decision brings a more robust interpretation of Section 12 of the charter, which is the prohibition of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment,” she said in a phone interview.

While she said Thursday’s decision only applies in Quebec, she has little doubt the Supreme Court of Canada will eventually weigh in on the issue.

Quebec’s prosecution service said in a statement Thursday that it is studying the ruling and had no immediate comment about a possible appeal.

Bissonnette’s lawyer, Charles-Olivier Gosselin, hailed what he said was “a major decision for the respect of human rights in Quebec and in Canada,” adding that the ruling reflects society’s “progressive values.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(File - Sooke News Mirror)
Man exposes himself to woman, children on Sooke trail

Suspect believed to be between 55 and 65 years of age

(Pixabay photo)
Emergency repairs underway on Phillips Road in Sooke

Sewage may have entered DeMamiel Creek and Sooke River

Victoria police are seeking public assistance in identifying a suspect and witness of a Dec. 4 sexual assault in Esquimalt. (Black Press Media file photo)
Police seeking suspect, witness of sexual assault of Esquimalt teen

Teen sexually assaulted Dec. 4 after departing number 15 bus

Victoria police are looking for missing woman Dana Frazer, 54, who is driving a blue 2016 Nissan Frontier pickup truck. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
UPDATED: High-risk, missing woman located by Victoria police

VicPD issued a missing alert for Dana Frazer on Jan. 15

Patrick MacMullan won $28,000 playing Toto. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Greater Victoria man wins $28,000 while watching football

Winning ticket purchased at Colwood convenience store

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the press theatre at the B.C. legislature for an update on COVID-19, Jan. 7, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 spread steady with 509 new cases Friday

Hospitalized and critical care cases decline, nine deaths

Harvest Meats is recalling a brand of Polish sausages, shown in a handout photo, due to undercooking that may make them unsafe to eat. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says the recall affects customers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Ontario and Saskatchewan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canadian Food Inspection Agency Mandatory Credit
Harvest Meats recalls sausages over undercooking

Customers are advised to throw away or return the product

(Black Press Media file photo)
From arts to environment, nominate your West Shore hero

Nominations for the Goldstream Gazette’s Local Hero awards are open to Jan. 15

The District reopened access to the Sooke Potholes on Friday. (Contributed - Ashley Ensor)
Sooke Potholes reopen after storm

The park was closed on Wednesday after down power lines

Nursing staff at West Coast General Hospital celebrate the announcement of a $6.25-million expansion of the emergency department that will start in March 2021. (File photo)
B.C. health ministry commits $6.25M to hospital expansion in Port Alberni

Plans for larger emergency department have been on hold since 2015

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government announces creation of B.C.’s first anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Black Press media file
Port McNeill driver tells police he thought the pandemic meant no breathalyzers

Suspect facing criminal charges after breathalyzer readings in excess of 3.5 times the legal limit

Most Read