The man who killed six people in a Quebec City mosque in 2017 received a “cruel and unusual” punishment when he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years, Quebec’s Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday.
In a unanimous decision, the court reduced Alexandre Bissonnette’s life sentence to 25 years without parole while at the same time invalidating sections of the Criminal Code that allow judges to hand out consecutive life sentences for murder.
A spokesperson for the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, where the attack took place, said he is dismayed by the decision.
“We would have liked a definitive sentence to prevent other attacks from taking place,” said Boufeldja Benabdallah. “We’re not thinking of only ourselves but of all Quebec society.”
Though the decision only applies to Quebec, it could have wide-ranging consequences for several convicted murderers who have been given consecutive sentences since Stephen Harper’s Conservative government legislated the practice in 2011.
Bissonnette was sentenced in 2019 after he pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. It was the longest ever handed down in Quebec.
In handing down the original sentence, Superior Court Justice François Huot signalled his discomfort with consecutive sentences.
Quebec’s 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 meant to represent the attempted murder of all those present on the night of the attack.
Judges strike down ‘absurd’ sentencing provisions
The Appeal Court justices said that hybrid sentence was the wrong way to address constitutional issues with the Criminal Code sentencing provisions.
Using often robust wording, the justices wrote that it was unconstitutional to force a prisoner to wait longer than 25 years for parole eligibility.
Doing so, they said, violates two sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Section 12, which protects against cruel and usual treatment and punishment, and Section Seven, which guarantees the right to life and security of the person.
The justices noted the “absurdity” of handing out life sentences that only allow a prisoner to apply for parole after they are likely to have died. They added that a fundamental concept of Canadian criminal law is the right of rehabilitated prisoners to be paroled.
“In Canada, even the worst criminal having committed the most heinous of crimes benefits at all times from the rights guaranteed under the Charter,” the justices wrote.
But they also stressed that eligibility for parole in the context of a life sentence must not be mistaken for likelihood of ever being paroled.
“In other words, there is no guarantee that the Parole Board will grant parole in 25 years.” the decision says.
A spokesperson for Quebec’s prosecution service said they were studying the decision and would later decide whether they would appeal.