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London attack ruling first to recognize terror on grounds of white nationalism

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TORONTO -

The case of an Ontario man who carried out a deadly attack on a Muslim family was the first to recognize terrorism on grounds of white supremacist ideology and further emphasized that terrorism isn't limited to those who belong to specific groups, experts and observers said after the landmark trial ended this week.

Nathaniel Veltman was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years for each of four counts of first-degree murder in the June 2021 attack that killed four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont.

Veltman, 23, was also sentenced to life in prison for the attempted murder of a boy who survived. All five sentences are to be served concurrently.

In handing down the sentencing decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance said Thursday it was an "inescapable conclusion" that Veltman committed a terrorist act in hitting the Afzaal family with his truck. She noted he targeted them because they were Muslim, and expressed white nationalist beliefs in a manifesto and in his statements to police.

"Terrorism is not exclusive to any group or ideology," she said. "Right-wing extremism is as potentially destructive of the social order as any other belief system promoting hate and violence."

Forty-six-year-old Salman Afzaal; his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumnah; and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal were killed in the attack. The couple's nine-year-old son was seriously hurt but survived.

The case was the first time Canada's terrorism laws were put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.

It also "marks the first time in Canadian history that a case involving white nationalism has met the threshold of terrorism," Amira Elghawaby, Canada's Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, said after the ruling. "This decision will have profound reverberations across Canada," Elghawaby said.

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen's University's school of religion, said the terrorism finding was important in light of the overwhelming evidence of ideological motivation.

"If Veltman, of all people, who mowed down a family, who left a manifesto ... who literally called himself a white nationalist and called for the deportation of certain minorities -- if that isn't ideology and if that isn't defined that way, then what exactly is the point of these words?" he said.

"It's important for these things to be applied fairly across ideologies and movements," he added.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the future in cases involving "more nebulous, far-right individuals who don't leave much behind," he said.

While the terrorism ruling wasn't a surprise given the evidence heard at trial, Pomerance's decision provides details on how to consider political purpose and ideological motivation -- both key elements of terror under law -- "in a way that we haven't seen before in criminal trials," said Michael Nesbitt, an associate professor of law at the University of Calgary who specializes in anti-terrorism.

In the past, someone accused of terrorism would be linked to a group, and that group with an ideology, which would then tie the person to that ideology, he said.

That made things more difficult when dealing not only with lone actors, but also with individuals "drawing from a potpourri of different ideological influences," rather than a focused movement or group, he said.

Thursday's ruling shows that the anti-terror laws in place are capable of capturing that sort of activity, which better reflects what officials have identified as the current security threat environment in Canada, he said.

"This is an example of a successful prosecution where they made the case with the available evidence just associated with the individual," he said.

In her decision, Pomerance said Veltman "did not need to commune with a group and he did not even need to leave his apartment in order to become wholly immersed in extremist doctrine."

While radicalization is complex, based on the evidence presented at trial, Veltman "drew much of his rage from internet sources, which he repeatedly accessed in the days and moments leading up to the attack," she said.

The judge said she would not refer to Veltman by name or repeat his beliefs in order to avoid giving him the attention he sought.

That position is understandable, but it also makes it more difficult to parse out how the things Veltman said stack up against our understanding of white nationalism, which is part of assessing ideology, said Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

"So that was, I think, something that will be food for lots of conversation and debate in months to come," she said.

Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor at York University's Osgoode Hall law school, has long opposed anti-terrorism laws, arguing they are deployed in a discriminatory fashion and serve no real purpose since the acts they cover are already illegal.

Veltman is facing the same sentence for the first-degree murders as anyone convicted of those offences without a terrorism component, he said, which shows terror convictions are largely symbolic.

"If it doesn't lead to different sentencing principles, then what is the point of a terrorism offence at all?" he asked.

Bhabha pointed to the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, the gunman who killed six people in a Quebec City mosque in 2017. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, none of them with a terrorism component.

Bissonnette was initially sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years, under a law in place at the time that allowed judges to stack the mandatory 25-year parole ineligibility periods in cases involving multiple first-degree murders.

That sentence, and the law allowing it, were then struck down by Quebec's top court, a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. Bissonnette's parole ineligibility was brought down to 25 years.

However, the fact that Pomerance considered terrorism as a key factor in sentencing Veltman to life for attempted murder was "noteworthy," he said.

"That might be the future of anti-terrorism legislation, to be able to capture acts ... that might not attract significant sentences, for acts that are short of murder that advance a terrorist cause," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

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