Critics are decrying a 'double standard' in Canadian legislation after Crown prosecutors failed to charge a man accused of a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque with terrorism-related offences.
They say that the absence of terrorism charges against Alexandre Bissonnette demonstrates that it's time to make changes to the criminal code.
“If Mohamed, a Muslim, would go see the Islamic State website twice, boom, he will be accused of terrorism, whereas Bissonnette, since the link (to terrorism) is less evident, we don’t do it,” said Stéphane Leman-Langois, criminology professor at Université Laval and a specialist in terrorism, in an interview on Wednesday.
“The problem is justice is not just a sentence for one person…. Whether (justice) wants to send a message or no, it’s still a message that if you are Muslim, you are more likely to be treated as a terrorist than if you’re not.”
Six people were killed and 19 wounded in the deadly attack at the Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017.
After the attack, several politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, described the massacre as a “terror attack.” But on Monday, the Crown declined to include any terrorism-related offences in its list of charges against Bissonnette.
The 12 charges consisted of six counts of first degree murders and six counts of attempted murders with the use of a restricted weapon. A new count of attempted murder was added on Monday to reflect that 35 people, including four children, were in close proximity to the shooter during the attack, according to Crown attorney Thomas Jacques.
“Evidence was rigorously analyzed and accusations are the fruits of both the evidence and the current state of law in Canada,” said Jacques. He said the list of charges had been finalized, according to The Canadian Press.
Boufeldja Benabdallah, vice-president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City agreed with Leman-Langlois’ analysis of the situation.
“The risk is that this decision confirms what is in the mind of each that there would be a double standard. And this would yet again create a fracture in Quebec’s society. On one side, Muslims, and on the other, the rest,” he told National Observer on Wednesday.
Benabdallah is disappointed and taken aback that the evidence doesn’t fit with the legal definition of terrorism. “We are going to say loudly that this way of interpreting the law is not right and that if the law is stuck within this definition, which is too weak, legislators have to amend the law, correct it, transform it so that it’s up to date."
Leman-Langlois also agreed that the Anti-terrorism Act as it stands is complicated because of the evidence required to fit in the definition.
He said that unless the police had found something incriminating, proving Bissonnette had made previous political statements about his intentions, such as a long manifesto similar to the one produced by Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 and injured 240 during attacks in July 2011, it would be hard to to prove terrorism charges.
“If all that’s been found are two or three documents here, extreme-right opinions there on blogs and discussions forums, but no link between these extreme-right opinions and the massacre at the mosque, there’s no evidence," said Leman-Langlois. "We can try to do everything but in the end, defence lawyers will be able to dig lots of hole in this and it won’t manage to be beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Leman-Langlois added that unless there was evidence Bissonnette was involved in an explicitly violent extreme-right group like skinheads, it wouldn’t work either. Being a member of extreme-right group La Meute, which always denies being violent, would not be enough.
“Justice and reality are two entirely different things. Justice is there to label things as they have been conceived in a big book called the Criminal Code. These labels more or less frame reality, we can play with these labels, we can stretch them a bit,” he explained.
For him, this terrorism charge should not be in the criminal code because of the contradictions and double standards that it creates.
"There's no reason to have a terrorism offence in the criminal code. We don't even know what terrorism is," said Leman-Langlois. "Having this description of 'terrorism' on (offences) that already exist and expecting the justice system to juggle with that, and then to send completely conflicting messages to the population where, from the standpoint of a Muslim, once again the Muslim population is systematically treated as the most dangerous, the closest to terrorism, the most organized, more this, more that — and then we're stuck with that because the criminal code has a provision that doesn't work very well."
Editor's Note: This piece was updated at 4:08 p.m. on Thurs. Oct. 5, 2017 to correct a factual error. The previous version stated that five people were wounded during the shooting. It was, in fact, 19 people. National Observer regrets the error.