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A pedestrian walks past the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Nov. 26, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Depriving mass killers of eligibility for parole until 50 years or more have passed is a form of vengeance that by its nature is wrong, Quebec’s top court has ruled in ordering that a man who killed six people at a mosque in 2017 be eligible for release after 25 years.

Sentences that last nearly as long as or even longer than the human lifespan are “grossly disproportionate,” a three-member Quebec Court of Appeal panel said, and “this disproportion may well satisfy a vengeful spirit.” But, citing the late Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer, the judges said, “Vengeance has no role to play in a civilized system of sentencing.”

Alexandre Bissonnette was 27 when he committed one of Canada’s most notorious hate crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years. The case brought Mr. Bissonnette into collision with a law that a former Public Safety official on Thursday described as “the death penalty through the back door.”

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It was the law that fell; the court struck it down as cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper adopted it in 2011. It allowed judges to order that parole ineligibility periods of 25 years be served consecutively, known as stacking, rather than concurrently.

The prosecution had sought 150 years at trial. Both sides appealed the 40-year sentence.

Justices François Doyon, Guy Gagnon and Dominique Bélanger ruled that Quebec Superior Court Judge François Huot acted outside his authority in setting parole eligibility at 40 years for Mr. Bissonnette. The law as written allowed stacking only in multiples of 25 years for parole ineligibility. Mr. Bissonnette could have received a maximum of 150 years.

“Are there situations in which it would not be cruel and unusual to impose minimum parole ineligibility periods of 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, indeed 1,000 years?” the judges asked, before describing such an order as absurd, degrading and an attack on human dignity. It said their ruling, the first on the law from an appeal court, was not about the horror of Mr. Bissonnette’s actions or the effect on the victims and community.

The ruling sets up a potential clash over core principles of Canadian criminal justice at the Supreme Court. A spokesman for Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions said the agency will review the ruling and confer with the Quebec Attorney-General’s department before commenting on whether it will appeal, adding that each stage of the judicial process causes survivors, their families and the community to relive the tragic events.

In the United States, sentences that outstrip the lifespan are not unusual in serious criminal cases. Larry Nassar, a doctor for gymnasts, was sentenced two years ago to up to 175 years for the sexual abuse of more than 150 women and girls. Investment adviser Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in 2009 after bilking investors out of billions of dollars.

The United States also makes frequent use of life in prison without parole, with more than 50,000 such cases. In Canada, those deemed dangerous offenders, although subject to indeterminate sentences, are eligible to apply for parole after just seven years.

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Canada banned capital punishment in 1976, and determined that a conviction of first-degree murder would bring an automatic life penalty, with eligibility for parole set at 25 years. A “faint-hope” provision allowed a chance to apply for parole after 15 years, but the Harper government scrapped it, saying it was necessary to give greater emphasis to victims’ rights, and recognize the value of each life taken.

Aymen Derbali, who was partly paralyzed in the mosque attack, told The Canadian Press the ruling was unjust. He pointed to the 75-year parole ineligibility given to Justin Bourque of New Brunswick for killing three Mounties in 2014. “Why will [Bissonnette], who killed six in such a massacre, have 25 years?” Mr. Derbali said.

Mary Campbell, now retired, was a director-general in the federal Public Safety department when the law was passed. She said the Conservative government had wanted to reinstate capital punishment, but believed public opinion wouldn’t allow it. Stacking parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders was seen as an alternative, she said.

It has been used at least 20 times, said Francis Villeneuve Ménard, a lawyer representing the Association des avocats de la défense de Montréal, which intervened at the appeal court. While the ruling applies only to Quebec, he said killers in other provinces could cite it in attempts to appeal their sentences. (Even those who did not raise a constitutional argument at trial might try to persuade an appeal court to hear such a challenge, he said.)

Canadian courts have dismantled much of the Harper government’s criminal-justice legislation, often over issues that removed judges’ discretion. Steven Penney, a professor who specializes in criminal justice at the University of Alberta law school, said a primary ground of appeal in the Bissonnette case may be that stacking is not mandatory. Judges don’t have to do it if they view it as inhumane.

He also said the consensus in the criminal-justice community is that the provision is awkward in allowing only increments of 25 years.

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Mr. Bissonnette went to the Grand Mosque of Quebec City with two firearms and, in less than two minutes, killed six people. He pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder. Three psychological experts for the defence testified that his risk to the public in 25 years would be no more than moderate. A Crown expert testified that it was hard to assess his risk in 25 years.

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