QUEBEC — The man who entered a Quebec City mosque last year and fatally shot six Muslim worshippers in an attack that shook the entire country sought forgiveness Wednesday as he denied being a terrorist or an Islamophobe.
"Every minute of my existence I bitterly regret what I did, the lives I have destroyed, the pain and suffering I have caused to so many people, without forgetting the members of my own family," Alexandre Bissonnette said as he read out a letter in court.
"I am ashamed. Ashamed of what I did."
Bissonnette, 28, spoke to the court shortly after a judge accepted his guilty pleas on six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder in connection with the attack on Jan. 29, 2017.
Many people in the courtroom burst out sobbing and held hands as the judge confirmed the guilty pleas, while widows of the victims cried when Bissonnette read his letter.
The fact Bissonnette was never charged with any terrorism-related counts riled many people, particularly those in the Muslim community.
On Wednesday, the accused addressed the terrorism angle.
"Despite what has been said about me, I am neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe,'' he told the court.
"Rather, I am someone who was overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair."
I would like to ask for forgiveness for what I did, but I know my acts are unforgivable.
The president of the mosque where the killings occurred appeared skeptical.
"That he's not a terrorist — those are his claims," Boufeldja Benamdallah told reporters.
"The damage has been done."
Bissonnette originally pleaded not guilty to the 12 charges Monday morning but announced that afternoon he was changing his mind and wanted to plead guilty.
Superior Court Justice Francois Huot originally refused to accept the pleas pending a psychiatric assessment of the accused to ensure he fully understood the consequences of his decision.
Huot placed a publication ban on Monday afternoon's proceedings but agreed Wednesday to accept the guilty pleas.
Bissonnette's full letter:
At this moment, as I am free to say everything that is on my mind and in my heart, I would like to tell you, Your Honour and everyone else, that every minute of my existence I bitterly regret what I did, the lives I have destroyed, the pain and suffering I have caused to so many people, without forgetting the members of my own family.
I am ashamed. Ashamed of what I did.
I do not know why I committed such an insane act and, still today, I have trouble believing it.
Despite what has been said about me, I am neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe.
Rather, I am someone who was overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair.
I had been having suicidal thoughts and ideas and an obsession with death for a long time. It's as though I was battling a demon that finished by winning out.
I would so much like to go back in time and change things. Sometimes, I have the impression that all of this is only a horrible dream, a long nightmare.
I would like to ask for forgiveness for all the hurt I have caused you. I know my actions are unforgivable.
If, at least in pleading guilty, I can do a bit of good, there will be that.
So that is why, Your Honour, I have pleaded guilty.
Mohamed Labidi, a member of the Muslim community in Quebec City and a former president of the mosque, said Bissonnette's comments left him wanting a fuller explanation of why he did what he did.
"It's very abstract what he told us," Labidi said. "We still need other explanations. The small words don't convince us about all the motives of the crime.
"It's not a complete answer for me. What he said as to why he did this crime it's very very short."
The charges against Bissonnette were related to the shooting attack at the Islamic Cultural Centre in which he killed six worshippers: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39.
The counts of attempted murder involved five people who were struck by bullets and a sixth charge encompassed the other people present at the mosque.
One of those in attendance Wednesday was Amir Belkacemi, Belkacemi's son, who said he was relieved there will be no trial.
"That the trial won't have to take place, it's a good thing for us, it's a good thing for everyone in the community," Belkacemi told reporters.
No one really wants to live those traumatic days again, and today what happened in the courtroom kind of puts it to an end.Amir Belkacemi, son of shooting victim
He said that what happened 14 months ago is still very fresh in people's minds.
"I think the events that took place last year are very traumatic, very difficult," he said. "No one really wants to live those traumatic days again, and today what happened in the courtroom kind of puts it to an end."
Psychiatrist Sylvain Faucher, who met with Bissonnette on Monday evening, said he was "fit to stand trial and to plead what he wants to plead."
"He did not want to be the perpetrator of another collective drama," said Faucher.
On Monday, Bissonnette said he wanted to plead guilty in order to "avoid a trial and for the victims to not have to relive this tragedy."
Bissonnette told Huot that day he had been thinking for sometime of pleading guilty but that he was missing certain pieces of evidence, which were relayed Sunday.
When Huot asked him if he was fully aware of what he was doing, Bissonnette replied, "Yes."
He also said he was not changing his pleas because of any threats and that he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Huot asked Bissonnette whether he knew he would be getting a life sentence and he answered, "I understand."
The judge also asked him if he understood he could receive consecutive sentences, meaning 150 years of prison.
"I know," Bissonnette replied, in a low voice.
Crown prosecutor Francois Godin said he hopes the guilty pleas will provide relief to the grieving families.
And Godin emphasized there was no agreement between the defence and the Crown that led to Bissonnette's guilty pleas.
"There is no deal in place," he said. "It will be up to the judge to impose the appropriate sentence."
Sentencing arguments will begin April 10.
Jury selection had been scheduled to start April 3 and the trial to last two months.
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