10/04/2017 14:12 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 14:51 EDT

Alexandre Bissonnette Charges In Quebec Mosque Shooting Do Not Include Terrorism

The prime minister had called the shooting a "despicable act of terror."

Alexandre Bissonnette, the suspect in a mass shooting at a mosque, arrives at the court house in Quebec City on Feb. 21, 2017.

A Canadian Muslim group says the decision not to charge the suspect in the Quebec City mosque shooting with terrorism highlights a double standard.

"There's no question that if a Muslim had walked into a church or a synagogue and shot up a bunch of people, that person would've been considered a terrorist by the Canadian public," Faisal Bhabha, legal counsel for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) told HuffPost Canada on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Crown prosecutors announced they were bypassing a preliminary hearing and heading straight to trial for Alexandre Bissonnette, who is accused of fatally killing six worshippers in January.

Mathieu Belanger / Reuters
A young mourner is comforted during a funeral ceremony on Feb. 3, 2017 for three of the victims of the deadly shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.

The 27-year-old is now facing six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder using a restricted firearm. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the shooting a "despicable act of terror" and Quebec provincial police treating it "as a terrorist act," Bissonette is facing no terrorism charges.

Prosecutor Thomas Jacques said the lack of terror-related charges was based on the evidence and laws the Crown had to work with.

"Pursuing terrorism charges against Mr. Bissonnette, though not likely necessary to secure a conviction and a lengthy sentence in this case, would have sent an important reassurance that Muslims are seen as equal victims of terror," Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) said in a statement.

Definition of terrorism

In the Criminal Code, the definition of terrorism hinges on intent, with activities of threat or violence needing to be "for the purpose of achieving a political, or religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state."

Though it's clear Bisonnette targeted a specific religious group, wrote anti-immigration social media postings, and voiced his support for U.S. President Donald Trump and far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, prosecutors have decided that they don't have enough to work with to slap down terrorism charges.

Lawyers and criminal law experts say that charging Bisonnette with terrorism is superfluous, and won't greatly impact his sentence. After all, if he's convicted on all six counts of first-degree murder, he will face the maximum prison sentence — life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta, told The Globe and Mail that adding terror charges can make prosecution more difficult.

"You're adding to the level of risk that some of the charges may not be successful," he said.

... when a white person has a political ideology and carries out a violent act, we ... seem to find it much more difficult to characterize those individuals as terrorists.Faisal Bhabha

But the NCCM takes issue with the inconsistent application of anti-terrorism laws — which reinforces the stereotype that only Muslims are terrorists, according to Bhabha, who is also an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Unlike Bissonnette, who appeared to have been swayed by white nationalist groups online, those who are influenced by Muslim ideologies are more quickly deemed terrorists.

"It seems that when a white person has a political ideology and carries out a violent act, we as a society and law enforcement in particular, seem to find it much more difficult to characterize those individuals as terrorists," Bhabha said.

"That is precisely what systemic racism does, is it produces that kind of assumption that white is neutral and that not white is always relevant. So race will always be relevant when someone is not white; but when someone is white, race somehow disappears, even when that person is a white nationalist."

Mathieu Belanger / Reuters
A man leaves the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on Feb. 1, 2017.

Justin Bourque, the man convicted of killing RCMP soldiers in Moncton, N.B. on an anti-government rampage, was also not charged with terrorism, even though RCMP officers had initially considered them.

But anti-terror legislation is hardly ideal. Bhabha said the NCCM's main issue with such laws is that it's most often used to create an "us vs. them" environment.

"The risk of anti-terrorism laws is that it stigmatizes an entire community of Canadian Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim because of the poisonous social climate that currently exists," he said.

"At the end of the day, the most important thing is that this individual is convicted and is put away for a long long time."

With files from The Canadian Press

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