For Quebec City Muslims, questions remain after mosque shooter pleads guilty

The guilty plea marks the end of a horrific chapter in the provincial capital. But some Quebec City Muslims are still searching for answers.

Alexandre Bissonnette reverses earlier plea, apologizes for pain he caused in attack

'I don't know what his intentions were, what the motives were that pushed him to commit this crime,' said Aymen Derbali, who was critically injured during the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In a wheelchair on the steps of the Quebec City courthouse, Aymen Derbali sighed in relief. He won't have to relive the horrors of Jan. 29, 2017, the night Alexandre Bissonnette walked into his mosque and killed six people.

Derbali tried to distract Bissonnette after he started shooting, but like four others, was critically injured. The father of three spent several months in a coma and is now paraplegic.

Bissonnette pleaded guilty Wednesday to all charges against him, including six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, reversing a not-guilty plea made two days earlier.

He then read a statement to the court explaining his decision: "In spite of what has been said about me, I am not a terrorist, nor an Islamophobe, rather a person who was carried away by fear, negative thoughts and a horrible form of despair." 

But for Derbali, Bissonnette's statement answered few questions and only left him feeling perplexed.

"I don't know what his intentions were, what the motives were that pushed him to commit this crime if he was not Islamophobic, and if it's not a crime of terror," Derbali said. 

Islamophobia looms large

In his statement, Bissonnette told the court he decided to change his plea because he is deeply sorry for the pain he caused and is ashamed of his actions. The families of the victims cried softly as he spoke.

Mohamed Labidi, the former president of Quebec City's Islamic Cultural Centre, where Bissonnette carried out his attack, said the killer's statement was "not a complete answer." He still wonders how a person could do such a thing.

Mohamed Labidi, the former president of Quebec City's Islamic Cultural Centre, speaks to reporters after Alexandre Bissonette pleaded guilty to all charges in the mosque shooting. (Julia Page/CBC)

"There is no response for many, many questions," he said.

Last year's shooting cast a shadow over Quebec City, leaving Muslims in the provincial capital fearful and raising questions about Islamophobia in Quebec society

Hassan Guillet, a prominent imam, said the guilty plea doesn't mean the media and politicians are off the hook.

"We don't want to hide behind this young man — to say that everything is going well, that the only author of these crimes is all this young man," he said.

Sparing families a burden 

But could a trial have helped shed light on what drove Bissonnette to kill six Muslim men? 

Faisal Bhabha, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, said that was unlikely, and isn't the role of the legal system.

"It doesn't necessarily give you insight into the accused's mind," he said.

A trial, he said, would have led to another round of pain.

"The only thing we know for sure that a trial would have done is that it would have asked a lot of the families of the victims. It would have been a big burden on them."

Aymen Derbali was left paralyzed after he was shot seven times in the Quebec city mosque shooting. He says Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty, should feel remorse for his actions. 0:48

​Amir Belkacemi, the son of Khaled Belkacemi, one of six men killed in the attack, echoed that sentiment. Outside the courtroom, he said the guilty plea was a "good thing."

"I think the events that took place last year were very traumatic, very difficult. No one really wants to live those traumatic days again."