Court found parole ineligibility periods of 50 years or more were 'cruel and unusual' punishment
In a historic decision that will affect sentences for the most serious crimes across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the gunman who killed six people in a Quebec City mosque cannot wait more than 25 years before being eligible for parole.
Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder for his attack on worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017.
Crown prosecutors had asked the country's top court to impose a 50-year wait for parole eligibility on Bissonnette.
Friday's decision was unanimous, with all nine judges dismissing the Crown's appeal and agreeing that "not only do such punishments bring the administration of justice into disrepute, but they are cruel and unusual by nature."
During a news conference after the ruling was made public, the president of the Islamic Cultural Centre expressed disappointment with the top court's decision.
"In our view, this decision fails to take into due consideration the atrocity and the scourge of the multiple murders which are multiplying in North America, as well as the hateful, Islamophobic and racist aspect of this crime," said Mohamed Labidi.
Supreme Court agreed with Court of Appeal ruling
For years, the nature of Bissonnette's crimes raised questions about whether an automatic life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years — the standard in Canada — was a fitting punishment.
A sentencing provision introduced in 2011 gave judges discretionary powers to hand out consecutive, 25-year blocks of parole ineligibility periods for multiple first-degree murders.
After he pleaded guilty in 2018, the Crown advocated for that option and asked the Quebec Superior Court judge to impose a parole ineligibility period of 150 years — 25 consecutive years for each of the six people he murdered.
See the newly renovated Quebec City mosque that makes worshippers safer and helps them 'turn the page'
The former president of the Islamic Cultural Centre gives a tour of the newly renovated mosque that was the site of a deadly attack five years ago.
It would have been the harshest Canadian sentence handed down since the abolition of the death penalty.
That judge handed down a life sentence with no chance of parole before 40 years — a decision that was overturned in 2020 by the Quebec Court of Appeal, who unanimously decided to set Bissonnette's wait for a chance at parole to 25 years.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal's ruling.
Friday's ruling immediately invalidates the consecutive sentencing periods provision, introduced in 2011 by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, finding "they are intrinsically incompatible with human dignity because of their degrading nature."
"They deny offenders any moral autonomy by depriving them, in advance and definitively, of any possibility of reintegration into society," the ruling reads.
Ruling not a reflection of 'value of each human life'
The nine Supreme Court justices found that stacking consecutive blocks of parole ineligibility — leading to wait times of 50, 75 or even 100 years — violated Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects "the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."
They also found that this violation was not justifiable under Section 1, which puts reasonable limits on Charter rights.
The six men who died in the mass shooting are Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi.
The Court described the gunman as being "fuelled by hatred," but said that his actions do not negate the notion that "all human beings carry within them a capacity for rehabilitation."
"Everyone would agree that multiple murders are inherently despicable acts and are the most serious crimes, with consequences that last forever," the decision reads.
"This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits of the state's power to punish offenders."
Ruling affects harsher sentences in Canada
By invalidating the sentencing provision that allowed judges to stack 25-year periods of parole ineligibility, Friday's decision means that any person in Canada who received a life sentence with no possibility of parole before 50 years or more "must be able to apply for a remedy."
That would be the case for convicted killers such as Justin Bourque, who was imposed a 75-year wait for parole eligibility after he shot and killed three RCMP officers and wounded two others in Moncton, N.B., and Edward Downey, who was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years after killing a five-year-old girl and her mother.
Bourque and Downey would be eligible for parole at the ages of 99 and 96, respectively.
"While some of these offenders are no longer in the judicial system, the infringement of their right guaranteed by Section 12 of the Charter is a continuing one since they remain completely without access to parole," read the ruling.
The Supreme Court justices also said that people who were sentenced under the 2011 provision, whose wait for parole is more than 25 years but less than 50, can also go to court to try to prove that their Charter rights were violated.
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