Supreme Court to hear appeal of Quebec City mosque shooter's sentence

The Supreme Court of Canada will rule on whether the Quebec City mosque shooter should receive the original sentence of life in prison without parole for 40 years that he was handed in 2019. 

Court will decide if original sentence of no parole for 40 years, reduced to 25, will stand

A memorial to the six men killed in the 2017 Quebec City mosque attack is seen in 2020. The Supreme Court announced Thursday it had accepted to hear an appeal about sentencing in the case.  (Julia Page/CBC)

The Supreme Court of Canada will rule on whether the Quebec City mosque shooter should receive his original sentence of two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole before 40 years.

Last fall, Quebec's Court of Appeal overturned that sentence and reduced it to two concurrent life terms with no possibiltity of parole for 25 years, calling it "cruel and unusual" punishment. The judges unanimously ruled in favour of the defence's arguments.

Alexandre Bissonnette was sentenced in 2019 for the January 2017 attack on a mosque in Quebec City. He killed six men — Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzedine Soufane and Aboubaker Thabti — and seriously wounded dozens of others during evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City.

Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. It was the longest sentence ever handed down in Quebec.

Shortly after the decision to reduce the sentence by Quebec's Court of Appeal, the attorney general and the Crown prosecutor's office announced they were taking the case to Canada's top court.

The Supreme Court announced it had accepted to hear the appeal on Thursday morning. 

Six men died in the attack on the Quebec mosque. They are, clockwise from left, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzedine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi. (CBC)

Mosque leader wants equality in sentencing

The Supreme Court's decision opens the door to a possible ruling on the sentencing provisions that Stephen Harper's Conservative government introduced in 2011.

The Quebec Court of Appeal decision last year to invalidate the consecutive sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code applies only in Quebec.

Since then, several convicted murderers have been given consecutive life sentences, including Justin Bourque, who is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 75 years for killing three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., in 2014.

At the time, mosque leaders said they were disappointed by the court of appeal's decision. 

"We would have liked a definitive sentence to prevent other attacks from taking place," Boufeldja Benabdallah, a founder of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, had said. "We're not thinking of only ourselves but of all Quebec society."

Thursday, Benabdallah told Radio-Canada he hopes the Supreme Court's ruling will create equality in sentencing across the country. 

"This is essential," he said. "In order for there to be justice, we need clear barriers around this law so that decisions can be clear."

Quebec Islamic cultural centre co-founder Boufeldja Benabdallah takes a moment before reacting to the deadly shooting in New Zealand, on Friday, March 15, 2019, in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The constitutional question of consecutive sentences

In issuing the original sentence, Superior Court Justice François Huot made it clear he was uncomfortable with consecutive sentences.

Crown prosecutors were asking for a life sentence of 150 years without parole eligibility. Huot settled on a sentence of 40 years without parole, composed of five concurrent 25-year life sentences and an unusual 15-year term for the sixth count, to be served consecutively. 

The Court of Appeal justices said that a hybrid sentence was the wrong way to address concerns about the constitutionality of consecutive sentences.

Often using strong wording to criticize the provisions introduced by the Conservatives, the justices wrote that it was unconstitutional to force a prisoner to wait longer than 25 years for parole eligibility.

During the appeal hearing, Bissonnette's lawyers tried to argue for a more lenient sentence by producing security camera footage from the night of the shooting that they said showed Bissonnette took care not to harm young children.

The Appeal Court ultimately rejected Bissonnette's request to have the evidence admitted, but the justices commented on the footage, saying it in fact contradicted what the lawyers alleged.

They said Bissonnette can be seen shooting at a section of the mosque where two children were hiding and a "little girl is standing ... completely frozen." A man later helped her take shelter behind a column.

"The evidence as a whole [shows] that the appellant attempted to kill young victims and that he was certainly not 'careful about the children,' as he stated to the police officers," the justices said.

With files from Jonathan Montpetit