Why accused in Quebec City mosque shooting isn't likely to face terrorism charges

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard both branded the Quebec City mosque shooting a "terrorist" act. Here's why the man charged in the killings of six people may not also face terrorism-related charges.

Terrorism charges would have little impact on potential sentence, legal experts say

Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder following the shooting at a Quebec City mosque Sunday. (Facebook)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard have called the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque a "terrorist attack," while others have said it's a "hate crime."

Alexandre Bissonnette has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. Police are considering adding terrorism-related charges against the 27-year-old, who appears to have acted alone.

It's a prospect Quebec's Muslim community is watching closely.

But legal experts say it's one that would have little impact on the sentence Bissonnette might face if convicted.   

Added to Canada's Criminal Code following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, terrorism is defined as an act committed "for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" that has "the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public with regard to its security."

To lay terrorism-related charges against Bissonnette, prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the above was the motivation behind Sunday's attack at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (Quebec Islamic cultural centre) that left six dead and 19 wounded.

The concept of the 'lone wolf'

The law is written in such a way that a person acting entirely alone is unlikely to face terror charges "unless they were giving money to or leaving to participate in a terrorist group,'' Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto, told The Canadian Press.

"A truly lone wolf attack cannot result in most terrorism offences, which require participation or support of a group or commission of an offence for a group,'' Roach said in an email.

Even if a person consulted materials from a terror group, that would not justify a terror charge, he said.

"Inspiration alone is not enough — you would need some form of active participation or direct instruction or incitement to commit a terrorist act,'' he said.

Quebec Muslims 'are terrorized'

Haroun Bouazzi, a local human rights advocate, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that he and other Muslims in Quebec are feeling "intimidated."

"Today, the Muslim minority is terrorized, they're actually scared, and this is, from my point of view, terrorism," Bouazzi, co-president of the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour la Laicité au Quebec, said Wednesday.

Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, is also involved in anti-discrimination initiatives. He said it's impossible to ignore the political and social context in which these decisions are made.

He contended that men of colour, and Muslim men in particular, are more likely to face terror charges than white male mass shooters such as New Brunswick resident Justin Bourque, who was convicted in 2014 of killing three RCMP officers.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has called the mosque shootings an act of terrorism, although Bissonnette has not been charged with terrorism-related offences. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

'No real purpose' to pursuing terror charges

Despite the symbolic weight of the terrorism-related charges, legal professionals note they would likely have little effect on the sentence if Bissonnette is found guilty. 

"He's facing multiple charges of murder, and the potential sentence goes beyond whatever could be imposed on him even if he was charged with terrorist activities," criminal lawyer Eric Sutton said. "There's no real purpose.

"If he's convicted of these crimes, he may never get out of jail."

The Quebec City mosque shooting tugged at the emotions of people across Canada and around the world. Vigils, including this one Monday in Montreal, were organized to honour the six men who died. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

150 years without chance of parole?

Under 2011 federal legislation entitled the Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act, Bissonnette wouldn't be eligible for parole for 150 years if convicted of the six counts of first-degree murder.

A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years, and the act allows for those 25-year periods to be consecutive, in cases of multiple murders.

For the 2014 killings, Bourque was sentenced to 75 years before being eligible for parole.

Bourque's sentence was the stiffest passed in Canada since the abolition of the death penalty in 1976.

Sources close to Radio-Canada said the prosecution in Bissonnette's case "will certainly study" the possibility of pursuing a similar course.

Defence lawyer and former Crown prosecutor Julien Grégoire told Radio-Canada on Wednesday that his experience suggests prosecutors will stay focused on proving the current murder and attempted murder charges against Bissonnette beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I would concentrate my energies, my knowledge, my experience on trying to obtain a conviction on the charges he already faces," Grégoire said.

With files from The Canadian Press and Radio-Canada's Yannick Bergeron