NEWS
02/08/2019 14:32 EST | Updated 02/08/2019 19:16 EST

Quebec Mosque Shooter Alexandre Bissonnette Sentenced To Life, 40 Years Without Parole

He killed six men in 2017.

QUEBEC — Alexandre Bissonnette was driven by "racism and hatred" when he stormed into a Quebec City mosque and gunned down six worshippers in 2017, a judge said Friday as he sentenced him to 40 years in prison without possibility of parole.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot began by saying the day of the murders "will forever be written in blood in the history of this city, this province, this country."

But he rejected the Crown's request for six consecutive life sentences, which would have prevented Bissonnette from seeking parole for 150 years and guaranteed that he end his life behind bars.

Rewrote Charter section

Huot concluded a sentence of 50 years or more would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and he declared that the section of the Criminal Code allowing consecutive life sentences violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While he did not strike down the section, he rewrote it to give himself the discretion to deliver consecutive life sentences that are not in blocks of 25 years, as had been the case. (First-degree murder carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole before 25 years.)

Bissonnette, 29, pleaded guilty last March to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder after he walked into the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre during evening prayers on Jan. 29, 2017 and opened fire. The murder victims were Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39.

'We were very upset': victim

Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times and left paralyzed from the waist down, told reporters he did not understand why the judge dwelled on Bissonnette's life expectancy and the possibility that he would die in prison.

"We were astonished, we were very upset after this sentence," Derbali said.

ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
Aymen Derbali, a victim in the Quebec mosque attack, talks to the press in the Quebec City Courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the mosque that was attacked, said community members were "stunned" by the decision and felt the judge was more concerned about the dignity of the killer than that of the victims and their families.

"We want to appeal to Quebec society to understand us, to understand the pain we are in today, the disappointment we feel," he said.

ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
Boufeldja Benabdallah, Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre president, talks to the press in the Quebec City courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

The Crown said it will take the time to study the 246-page decision before deciding whether to appeal. The defence also said it needs time to study the ruling.

As the judge read a detailed account of the shooter's actions, several people in the Quebec City courtroom wept. Two women left in tears as Huot described how Bissonnette approached Soufiane as he lay on the ground, already wounded, and fired another bullet into his head.

The judge said that in the years leading up to the shooting Bissonnette increasingly drank alcohol and experienced anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Huot noted that witnesses at his sentencing hearing testified that he had been severely bullied in school and had a documented history of mental health problems. He also lacked empathy, the judge said, quoting Bissonnette's statement after the shootings: "I regret not having killed more people."

Handout . / Reuters
Alexandre Bissonnette is seen in a Facebook posting.

The defence had argued Bissonnette should be eligible for parole after 25 years, but Huot said that would be too little.

The Criminal Code was amended in 2011 to allow a judge to impose consecutive sentences in cases of multiple murder, but it was clear as Huot spent nearly six hours reading the decision that he was wrestling with the constitutionality of the provision.

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 longest prison sentence in Canada to date is 75 years without parole, which has been given to at least five triple killers since the law was changed to allow consecutive sentences.

Aggravating factors

All 250 seats in the courtroom were filled, with a section reserved for members of Quebec City's Muslim community. Bissonnette's parents were also present.

Among the aggravating factors Huot cited in determining the sentence were the "well-planned and highly premeditated" nature of the crime, the number of victims, the fact they were in a house of worship and the hatred of Islam that motivated Bissonnette.

On the other hand, the judge said, Bissonnette had no previous criminal record, he pleaded guilty and he expressed remorse. He noted that Bissonnette's mental health problems contributed to his actions and judged the danger of him reoffending as "moderate" at most.

ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
Crown prosecutors Thomas Jacques (L) and Francois Godin (R) walk before talking to the press in the Quebec City courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

A decision on sentencing was originally expected in October, but Huot pushed that back, saying he needed more information on some legal questions, including the constitutionality of consecutive life sentences.

Witnesses at the time described the former Universite Laval student entering the Islamic Cultural Centre and calmly opening fire on the crowd gathered for evening prayers.

ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
Ahmed Cheddadi, who was in the mosque during the Quebec mosque attack, talks to the press on Friday.

In addition to the men killed, five others were struck by bullets. The sixth attempted murder charge related to others who were nearby in the mosque.

The crime prompted an outpouring of horror and sympathy that reached across Canada and around the world, prompting a wider conversation on Islamophobia, intolerance, and the need for better understanding between communities. During a sentencing hearing last June, the conversation began to shift to the appropriate way to punish a crime that was, in many ways, unprecedented in Canadian history.

Pleaded guilty

In pleading guilty, Bissonnette expressed shame and remorse for his actions but offered no clear explanation of why he did it. In a statement read in court, he said he was "neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe," but rather someone who was "overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair."

But in a police interrogation played in court during sentencing, Bissonnette told investigators he wanted to protect his family from terrorists when he committed the killings. He referred to numerous attacks in Europe as well as the 2014 shooting in Ottawa outside Parliament and said he "lost it" after learning Canada was preparing to take in more refugees.

ALICE CHICHE via Getty Images
Crown prosecutor Thomas Jacques talks to the press.

Prosecutor Thomas Jacques had argued that a 150-year sentence would be proportionate to the "carnage" inflicted on the city's Muslim community and the trauma suffered by the rest of the country. He painted Bissonnette as a calculated killer who was "looking for glory" and targeted a group of people based on bigotry and hatred.

But Bissonnette's lawyer, Charles-Olivier Gosselin, portrayed his client as an anxious and fragile man who deeply regrets his actions and is not beyond rehabilitation. He argued a 150-year term would be the equivalent of a death sentence.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Alexandre Bissonnette had already been sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 35 years. This was a Reuters error as the judge was still reading his judgment.

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