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

Harrison Hot Springs Elementary students opened their new playground with smiles and play on Jan. 13, 2021. (Tammy Nazarchuk/Harrison Hot Springs Elementary)
Harrison students open new playground

The accessible installation includes musical instruments with the regular playground equipment

The Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve’s network of trails is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. (chilliwackblueheron.com photo)
Provincial funding goes to Chilliwack’s Great Blue Heron Reserve for trail upgrades

The popular destination saw even more traffic in 2020 as people headed outdoors during the pandemic

The 4th Annual Fraser Valley Marches for Women March is virtual this year, and this file shot depicts speeches from the first march from Jan. 20, 2018. (Jennifer Feinberg/Chilliwack Progress file)
Video on women’s march emphasizes that violence against women increasing

Key messages from Chilliwack women leaders as the FV Marches for Women March goes virtual

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission schools

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Post-COVID-19 recovery clinic in Surrey, at Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre. (Photo: Fraser Health)
Surrey gets one of three post-COVID-19 recovery clinics

The Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre is located at 9750 140th Street

Competitors make their way through the course at the 2019 Canadian Cross Country Championships, which was hosted by Abbotsford in 2019. (File photo)
Abbotsford to host 2023 Canadian Cross Country Championships

Clearbrook Park last hosted the event in 2019, Ottawa hosting 2021 and 2022 races

Abbotsford Police officers investigate the scene after a pedestrian was struck and killed on Friday morning. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
Male pedestrian, 37, killed in Abbotsford after being struck by vehicle

Collision took place in 31800 block of South Fraser Way on Friday morning

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Most Read