Quebec City (AFP) – A Canadian man known for his far-right, nationalist sympathies pleaded guilty Wednesday to the killing last year of six worshipers at a Quebec mosque — a surprising turn of events in a case that shocked the country.
The rampage on January 29, 2017 was one of the worst attacks on an Islamic place of worship in the West, and also left more than 30 injured.
Described in the immediate aftermath by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “terrorist attack,” the shooting spree was a brutal blow to Canada’s multicultural society, and to a nation that welcomes tens of thousands of refugees each year.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 28, opened fire on a cold, snowy night at the end of Sunday prayers at Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Center, a mosque located in a normally quiet neighborhood.
He had initially pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial on Monday on the advice of his lawyers, but apparently had a change of heart.
“I’ve decided to plead guilty to all of the charges … in order to prevent the families of the victims from having to relive” the horrors of the attack, said Bissonnette, who also faced six counts of attempted murder.
Sobs erupted in the courtroom as Judge Francois Huot accepted Bissonnette’s guilty plea, following a court-ordered psychiatric assessment.
“I find you guilty of these murders,” he said.
Bissonnette, who was a university student at the time of the shooting, could now face a life sentence, or a minimum of 25 years in prison.
In court on Wednesday, Bissonnette — who police say called an emergency line and confessed shortly after the shooting — read aloud from a crumpled piece of paper, saying: “I bitterly regret what I did, the lives that I destroyed.
“I am neither a terrorist, nor an Islamophobe,” he said.
“I do not know why I did a foolish thing like that, and still today I’m having a hard time believing it.”
– ‘Unforgivable’ –
Introverted and educated, Bissonnette had been described after his arrest as a white supremacist opposed to Muslim immigration, but not affiliated with any group.
He told the court on Wednesday how he had been “swept away by fear and by horrible despair that had brought on thoughts of suicide.”
Turning to the families and friends of the victims and survivors packed into the courtroom, he offered an apology but added, “I know my actions are unforgivable.”
The six victims — Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti — were Canadian dual nationals born in Algeria (two), Guinea (two), Morocco and Tunisia, and who had long ago resettled in Quebec.
They were a scholar, a butcher, a daycare operator, a food industry worker, a public servant and a computer programmer — all connected by faith.
The attack at once prompted marches of solidarity with the Muslim community, but also emboldened nationalist and right-wing extremists who became more vocal against immigration and “radical Islam,” despite distancing themselves from the young attacker seemingly inspired by their rhetoric.