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

The proposed Skaha Lake Road housing project will be modelled after the Burdock House on Winnipeg St., said BC Housing.
BC Housing panel peppered with questions about Skaha housing project

Virtual meeting involved questions about crime, level of supports, timelines

(Stock photo)
EDITORIAL: COVID-19 restrictions continue to affect us all

Canada has recorded more than 700,000 confirmed cases of pandemic

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

Landmark Cinemas Penticton was forced to close down when the provincial government ordered all theatres to close when new COVID-19 restrictions were brought in Nov. 19, 2020. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Despite ‘devastating’ losses the show will eventually go on at Penticton theatre

Landmark Cinemas has been offering movie popcorn since having to close in November

Ace Academy: Flight Experience is a digital interactive exhibition from the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. The exhibition is currently at the Penticton Museum and Archives. (Canada and Aviation Space Museum)
Penticton museum hosts innovative way to simulate authentic flight experience

Ace Academy: Flight Experience is a digital interactive exhibition currently touring across Canada

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

A couple living at the Summerland Waterfront Resort is trying to sell their unit because of strata changes which will require them to pay significantly higher strata fees or have their unit included in the resort’s rental pool (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Couple living at Summerland resort facing increases

Permanent residents of Summerland Waterfront Resort told fees will more than double

(Big White Ski Resort)
28 more cases of COVID-19 linked to Big White cluster

More than 200 cases have been identified since the cluster was announced

Police are seeking further witnesses after an elderly woman who was struck by a vehicle in Salmon Arm succumbed to her injuries. (File Photo)
Salmon Arm pedestrian dies after being hit by truck along Highway 1

Collision took place on Jan. 15 in downtown Salmon Arm, police looking for witnesses

A cow moose wanders around the Silver Star Elementary School neighbourhood Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Contributed)
Moose chases two people near North Okanagan school

Conservation and dog control attending to the situation

The sale of the Kirschner Mountain Development for $22M marks the largest in Realtor history, in the Okanagan. (Contributed)
Kelowna mountain development sold for $22M

The sale of the 640-acre Kirschner Mountain development has made the history books

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

Most Read