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Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

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QUEBEC, Conn. — 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."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2020.

— By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal with files from Stephanie Marin

The Canadian Press