Canadian Alexandre Bissonnette will be sentenced on Friday for killing six worshipers at the Quebec City mosque in January 2017 in the worst ever attack on Muslims in the West.
The 29-year-old faces the prospect of life in prison if ordered to serve 25 years consecutively for each of the six murders for which he pleaded guilty.
The prosecution has asked for a total of 150 years behind bars, which would be the harshest penalty ever handed down by a judge in Canada.
“The sentence must be just and fit this horrendous crime,” Megda Belkacemi, the daughter of one of the victims, told AFP.
“Emotionally it will be difficult, whatever the judge’s decision,” said the young woman who has attended all of the court proceedings in the case and opposes leniency in Bissonnette’s sentencing, explaining that she “owed it to my father.”
For several days last spring, families of the victims, worshipers present on the evening of the shooting rampage, and experts in psychiatry, testified at a pre-sentencing hearing about the impact the attack had on their lives and the community.
At 7:55 p.m. on Sunday, Jan 29, 2017 (Monday 00:55 GMT), Bissonnette burst into the Quebec City mosque and unleashed a hail of bullets on the 40 men and four children who were chatting amongst themselves after evening prayers.
Security video footage showed a cold-blooded killer strategically and methodically firing dozens of shots, retreating to a safe area to reload his 9 mm pistol at least four times, “like he was playing a video game,” recounted one witness.
Six men were killed and five were seriously injured, one of whom is now quadriplegic.
The victims were all dual nationals who emigrated to Canada over recent decades: two Algerians, two Guineans, a Moroccan and a Tunisian. They were a scholar, a butcher, a daycare operator, a food industry worker, a public servant and a computer programmer — all connected by faith.
Survivors described in court those harrowing moments under fire and their suffering since the shooting: one leaving a trail of smeared blood on the floor while dragging himself to a hiding spot, another still feeling pain from bullet debris left in his leg after surgery.
Many said they are struggling with anxiety, including one man who said he now plots a safe exit whenever he goes out to a coffee shop or a store.
End of ‘long, dark tunnel’
Introverted and educated, Bissonnette had been described after his arrest as a white supremacist opposed to Muslim immigration but not affiliated with any group.
At the start of his trial in 2017, the university student pleaded guilty and said he had been suicidal, “swept away by fear and by horrible despair,” and deeply regretted his “unforgivable” actions.
He also told the court he hoped for a “ray of hope at the end of the long, dark tunnel in which I lost myself on Jan 29.”
The defense has asked for a sentence not exceeding 25 years in jail.
Concurrent sentences — serving multiple sentences at the same time — are relatively new in Canada. The Criminal Code was amended in 2011 to allow judges to stack periods of parole ineligibility.
Such sentences have been applied sparingly since then, including a 75-year sentence give to a man who shot dead three police officers in Moncton in 2014.
“There are many good things that will come from this tragedy, and everything that can be done to prevent it from happening again to us or to any other community,” commented mosque president Boufeldja Benadballah.
“We must turn the page,” he told AFP.
Canadians and their leaders condemned the attack in the immediate aftermath.
Two years later Quebec Premier Francois Legault sparked outrage by saying that Islamaphobia is not a problem in the province when he was asked to join Toronto — Canada’s largest city — in supporting a day of action against fear, hatred and prejudice against Islam or Muslims generally last month.
“I do not think there is Islamophobia in Quebec,” he said, a few days after the ceremonies marking two years after the mosque attack.
Following a public outcry, a government spokesman walked back the comments, saying the premier “meant to say that there is no Islamophobic undercurrent in Quebec”, while acknowledging that “there is Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and hatred.”