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

Luke Marston works on the seawolf mask for Canucks goalie Braden Holtby. (Mike Wavrecan photo)
Stz’uminus artist Luke Marston designs new mask for Canucks goalie

The mask features artwork inspired by the Coast Salish legend of the sea wolf

Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent and CEO, has seen his contract renewed for four years, the district announced Wednesday. (SD68 YouTube screenshot)
Ladysmith school district renews superintendent’s contract for four years

‘Singing superintendent’ Scott Saywell under contract through 2024-25 school year

Emergency services were on scene at 1st Avenue and Warren Street after a skateboarder was struck by a vehicle. (Submitted photo)
Skateboarder ‘bumped’ by vehicle on 1st Avenue

Emergency services personnel say the skateboarder is uninjured

Parents Robin Ringer and Wyatt Gilmore with the No. 1 baby of 2021 in the Cowichan Valley. They have yet to decide on a name for her. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Chemainus couple excited about having the New Year’s baby for the Cowichan Valley

Recent arrivals from Fort Nelson celebrate their girl coming into the world on Jan. 7

Regional District of Nanaimo’s transit select committee is expected to vote on a recommendation that could see busing between Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley. (News Bulletin file)
Regional District of Nanaimo staff recommending bus route to Cowichan Valley

More than 1,900 survey respondents expressed support for inter-regional transit, notes RDN report

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

An elk got his antlers caught up in a zip line in Youbou over the weekend. (Conservation Officer Service Photo)
Elk rescued from zip line in Youbou on Vancouver Island

Officials urge people to manage items on their property that can hurt animals

A Trail man has a lucky tin for a keepsake after it saved him from a stabbing last week. File photo
Small tin in Kootenay man’s jacket pocket saved him from stabbing: RCMP

The man was uninjured thanks to a tin in his jacket

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Chantel Moore, 26, was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in the early morning of June 4, 2020, in Edmundston, N.B. (Facebook)
Frustrated family denied access to B.C. Indigenous woman’s police shooting report

Independent investigation into B.C. woman’s fatal shooting in New Brunswick filed to Crown

Delta Police Constable Jason Martens and Dezi, a nine-year-old German Shepherd that recently retired after 10 years with Delta Police. (Photo submitted)
Dezi, a Delta police dog, retires on a high note after decade of service

Nine-year-old German Shepherd now fights over toys instead of chasing down bad guys

Nurses collect samples from a patient in a COVID suspect room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
5 British Columbians under 20 years old battled COVID-19 in ICU in recent weeks

Overall hospitalizations have fallen but young people battling the virus in hospital has increased

Canada released proposed regulations Jan. 2 for the fisheries minister to maintain Canada’s major fish stocks at sustainable levels and recover those at risk. (File photo)
New laws would cement DFO accountability to depleted fish stocks

Three B.C. salmon stocks first in line for priority attention under proposed regulations

Trees destroyed a Shoreacres home during a wind storm Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay woman flees just before tree crushes house

Pamala DeRosa is thankful to be alive

Most Read