Alexandre Bissonnette Sentenced to 40 Years Without Parole for Quebec Mosque Killings
Alexandre Bissonnette, a 29-year-old former politics student fixated on President Trump, the far right and Muslims, was sentenced on Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 40 years for shooting six people dead in an attack on a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017.
During the attack, Mr. Bissonette shot several worshipers in the head. Nineteen people were injured, including one paralyzed for life.
Muslim leaders, including the mosque’s president, Mohamed Labidi, had said a maximum sentence was justified, given the horrors of a crime that had deeply shaken Canada and the Muslim community.
“It is necessary for justice to be done and for there to be a deterrent against other such attacks by criminals,” Mr. Labidi said.
The rampage convulsed Canada, shocking a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism. The sentence comes amid a renewed and rancorous debate in Quebec about Islamophobia after Quebec’s premier, François Legault, drew opprobrium from Muslim leaders late last month for contending that Islamophobia wasn’t a problem in Quebec.
His office later qualified that he did not mean Islamophobia didn’t exist, but, rather, that it wasn’t systemic in the province.
Still, his remarks — two days after the second anniversary of the mosque attack — were greeted with incredulity and anger by survivors, including Aymen Derbali, who was hit with seven bullets and paralyzed from the waist down after trying to distract Mr. Bissonnette during the rampage.
“There is Islamophobia — the proof is what happened at the mosque,” he told reporters at a ceremony last month, where he was being honored for his bravery.
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Mr. Labidi, the mosque’s president, said he and other Muslim leaders feared that a proposal by Quebec’s government to ban civil servants, including judges and teachers, from wearing religious symbols in the workplace threatened to foment a climate of hate and further stigmatize Muslims, in particular women who wear headscarves.
According to figures released by the government agency Statistics Canada in November, Canada reported a 47 percent increase in hate crimes in 2017, with incidents targeting Muslims, Jews and black people accounting for the increase. It said Quebec had recorded a 50 percent increase in hate crimes.
Prosecutors had argued that six consecutive 25-year jail sentences for each of the six first-degree murder charges befitted the heinousness of the crime, which they called both “violent” and “racist.” Mr. Bissonnette pleaded guilty last year to the charges.
But the defense countered that consecutive sentences amounted to a “death sentence by incarceration” and breached Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which sets out Canadians’ constitutional rights and states that “everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.”
Irwin Cotler, a prominent international human rights lawyer who served as Canadian justice minister and attorney general, noted that the judge would have had to consider the egregiousness of the crime as well as Mr. Bissonnette’s mental state.
“Sentencing in cases of multiple murders are supposed to bear in mind the principles of retribution and denunciation,” he said. “Clearly the nature of the act was vulgar and offensive. So the court would have had to weigh the heinousness of an offender motivated by hate and anti-Islamic sentiment mixed up with mental illness.”
The Canadian Criminal Code was revamped in 2011 by the previous conservative government to allow for consecutive sentences in cases involving multiple murders. In recent years, several judges have handed out 75-year sentences, including in the case of Justin Bourque, who killed three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in a shooting rampage in 2014.
During the sentencing hearing, which lasted for several weeks, the prosecution argued that Mr. Bissonnette had killed in a premeditated fashion and approached his victims with a cold-blooded ruthlessness that merited the toughest sentence the law allowed.
The court heard that Mr. Bissonnette was a socially marginalized young man who had become enthralled by far-right websites and obsessed by serial killers, Muslims and Mr. Trump’s tweets.
In the month before the attack, he surfed the internet 819 times for posts related to Mr. Trump, including the American president’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries.
Mr. Bissonnette also browsed websites linked to the white nationalist Richard Spencer, the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans at a South Carolina church in 2015.
Mr. Bissonnette had targeted the mosque just hours after he learned of a tweet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming refugees to Canada who were being spurned by Mr. Trump.
But the defense presented a contrasting narrative of Mr. Bissonnette, describing him as a slight young man who had been mercilessly bullied at school, and suggesting that society had failed him and that he deserved empathy and could be rehabilitated.
His defense lawyer, Charles-Olivier Gosselin, told the court that Mr. Bissonette suffered from chronic psychiatric problems, and did not fit the violent profile of a serial killer for whom consecutive sentences were appropriate.
He had proposed a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Mr. Bissonnette, he argued, had showed signs of remorse, had cooperated with the police and had surrendered after the rampage.
In emotional testimony, Lucie Côté, a former high school teacher who taught Mr. Bissonnette French, told the court that the defendant was beaten up and mocked by other students, who shoved him against the wall and jeered at him.
“Alexandre developed nervous reflexes, reflexes of fear,” she said. “Alexandre was not a monster.”