Canada’s Supreme Court rejects prosecutors’ appeal for the shooter to serve 50 years without possibility of parole.
Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the gunman who attacked Quebec’s largest mosque in 2017, killing six and severely injuring five others, will be allowed to seek parole after serving 25 years of his sentence.
Prosecutors had asked that Alexandre Bissonnette be held in prison for at least 50 years before possibility of parole. But the country’s top court dismissed their appeal, ruling that a life sentence without the realistic possibility of release is “cruel and unusual by nature” and violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Such sentences are degrading in nature and thus incompatible with human dignity, because they deny offenders any possibility of reintegration into society, which presupposes, definitively and irreversibly, that they lack the capacity to reform and re‑enter society,” the court said in a decision backed by all nine justices.
On January 29, 2017, Bissonnette entered the mosque armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a pistol and in two minutes fired dozens of rounds at worshippers.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
A year later, Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 40 years. Bissonnette had faced as many as 150 years without a chance at parole under a 2011 law that allows Canadian courts to hand down consecutive sentences – each first-degree murder count comes with 25 years. But Huot said such a lengthy penalty would be “unreasonable”.
Bisonnette’s lawyers appealed the sentence, and in November 2020, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled (PDF) that the Canadian sentencing provisions were unconstitutional and should be struck down. It reduced Bissonnette’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. But Quebec appealed to the Supreme Court, asking for the gunman to be barred from accessing parole for 50 years.
Now the top court has upheld the Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision. Its ruling on Friday will affect sentences across Canada going forward.
The Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, the mosque where the attack took place, said in a statement on Friday (PDF) that the top court’s decision does not take into consideration the severity “of multiple murders, as well as the racist, Islamophobic and racist nature of the crime”.
“While we are disappointed in the decision of the country’s highest judicial body, this allows us to close the judicial chapter and we now hope to focus on the future,” the mosque said.
Still, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an advocacy group, said the ruling “reopened” the wounds of the victims.
“The pain, suffering, and anguish he caused with his calculated plan of mass murder will never fully be extinguished for those whose lives he destroyed in Quebec City and beyond,” NCCM CEO Mustafa Farooq said in a statement on Friday.
“The community in Quebec City will never reach full closure for their loss, particularly knowing that the cause of their pain may return to life among them in 20 years.”
Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of January 29th, 2017 today, as old wounds are reopened by the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision. We will always stand with them. pic.twitter.com/H1WtwYedPK — NCCM (@nccm) May 27, 2022
In their decision, the top court’s justices had acknowledged the “anguish and pain” of Canada’s Muslim community after the shooting.
“The respondent [Bissonnette] committed horrendous crimes that damaged the very fabric of our society. Fueled by hatred, he took the lives of six innocent victims and caused serious, even permanent, physical and psychological injuries to the survivors of the killings,” Friday’s ruling reads.
“He left not only families devastated but a whole community – the Muslim community in Quebec and throughout Canada – in a state of anguish and pain, with many of its members still fearful for their safety today.”
Still, the court said it must rule on the constitutional limits of state power and reaffirm its commitment “to upholding the rights it guarantees to every individual, including the vilest of criminals”.