The man who killed six worshippers inside a Quebec City mosque in 2017 could receive the longest prison sentence in Canadian history when he appears before a judge Friday.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 29, faces a sentence of up to 150 years before being eligible for parole in what is being watched as a possible landmark decision. He will learn his fate at the Quebec City courthouse in a ruling by Superior Court Justice Francois Huot.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty last March to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder after he walked into the mosque during evening prayers on Jan. 29, 2017 and opened fire.
The charges resulted from his Jan. 29, 2017 attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre that left six men dead: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39.
Witnesses described the former Universite Laval student entering the mosque and calmly opening fire on the crowd of men who were gathered there for evening prayers.
In addition to the men killed, five other men were struck by bullets, including Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times and was paralyzed from the waist down. The sixth attempted murder charge related to others who were nearby in the mosque.
The first-degree murder charges carry an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole before 25 years. But under a new provision of the Criminal Code adopted in 2011, a judge can now order that the sentences be served consecutively in cases with multiple victims.
The Conservative government of the day said the change was needed to bring an end to “discount sentences” for mass murderers.
At Bissonnette’s sentencing hearing, Crown prosecutor Thomas Jacques argued that the six sentences should be served consecutively, totalling 150 years before he could seek parole. He called for a sentence “that reflects the scale of the crimes committed.”
Bissonnette’s lawyers said he should be eligible for parole after 25 years in prison. They called a 150-year sentence the equivalent of a “death sentence by imprisonment” and said it would be “contrary to human dignity.”
They are seeking to have the section of the Criminal Code permitting consecutive sentences declared unconstitutional, arguing that it infringes the protection against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The defence said even two consecutive sentences would violate the Charter because it would exclude any possibility that the accused could be rehabilitated and re-enter society. Even if the judge decides the sentences should be served concurrently, it does not necessarily mean Bissonnette would walk out of prison after 25 years. That decision would lie with the Parole Board of Canada.
Mohamed Labidi, former president of Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre, said the Muslim community is looking for justice in Friday’s ruling. He said people in the community are “almost unanimous” that serving just 25 years would not be enough considering six people were murdered.
“Every life is important,” he said.
The longest sentence to date in Canada is 75 years without parole. Justin Bourque in New Brunswick, Dellen Millard in Ontario and Derek Saretzky in Alberta all received that sentence for triple murders.
Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau of Quebec was sentenced to 35 years without parole last year for ordering two murders and two attempted murders. In Ontario, the Crown is seeking 50 years in prison for the Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur, who pleaded guilty to eight first-degree murders.
By comparison, Robert Pickton, who was sentenced in 2007 before the Criminal Code was changed to allow consecutive sentences, received life with no chance of parole for 25 years after being found guilty of killing six women.
Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press