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Mourners pray as caskets draped in Canadian flags are lined up at a funeral for the four Muslim family members killed in a deadly vehicle attack, at the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario in London, Ont.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Crown lawyers are adding terrorism to the charges against a man accused in a fatal attack on a family in London, Ont., the first use of Canada’s antiterrorism law to prosecute an alleged Islamophobic act as an extremist hate crime calculated to spread fear.

In the June 6 attack, a driver in a pickup truck killed four members of a family and injured a nine-year-old boy. Authorities initially charged the accused with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder.

Five Muslim pedestrians deliberately hit by driver, four dead, in alleged hate attack in London, Ont.

The London attack reaffirms why Muslims often feel unsafe in their own country

Prosecutors told a London court on Monday that they will try to prove that those crimes were also terrorism offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Calls by Muslim and anti-hate groups for a terrorism prosecution began soon after police said the family was targeted “because of their Islamic faith.” Similar calls were made after the 2017 attack at a Quebec city mosque, in which a gunman shot six men dead, and in 2020, when a man fatally stabbed a caretaker at a Toronto mosque.

Because the earlier cases caused only murder charges, Muslim groups have said prosecutors were missing opportunities to highlight such killings as ideologically motivated crimes intended to inspire fear, which is how terrorism is defined.

Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims welcomed the terrorism charges. “He deserves to be charged under the appropriate sections of the Criminal Code – it’s very simple and straightforward,” he said.

Saboor Khan, a friend of the slain family, said the new charges are a better way to denounce Islamophobic violence. “This needs to stop. And the only way we’re going to stop it is by giving it the weight that it needs,” he said. “This is a security threat to our nation – to Canada.”

First-degree murder convictions carry life sentences, the toughest punishment possible under Canadian criminal law. For that reason, legal experts say prosecutors may see any layering on of terrorism charges as an unnecessary burden that fails to change outcomes in court. Proving terrorism is also difficult unless authorities have access to an accused’s mindset through informants or manifestos or admissions.

“It’s obviously the first time we’re seeing an attack on the Muslim community be charged as terrorism,” said Michael Nesbitt, a University of Calgary law professor. He said his analysis of the Anti-Terrorism Act shows that 59 of 62 terrorism charges laid in Canada since 2001 have involved allegations the suspects were inspired by groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

“For a long time, there have been questions about how terrorism legislation was utilized against marginalized communities,” Mr. Farooq said.

Federal security agencies say they are now contending with an ever more diffuse array of extremists – including actors spurred toward violence by xenophobia.

The Afzaal family was taking a Sunday evening walk when a pickup truck mounted the curb and hit them on the sidewalk. Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna, and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talad Afzaal, were all killed. The couple’s nine-year-old son survived the attack.

Eyewitnesses have said the driver of the pickup truck was wearing a helmet and protective vest at the time of his arrest minutes after the attack. Nathaniel Veltman, 20, made his second appearance before a London court on Monday.

“Mr. Veltman, you are now charged with four counts of first-degree murder,” federal Crown attorney Sarah Shaikh said during a virtual hearing. She then said: “In addition to the allegation that these murders were planned and deliberate, the further allegation is that they also constitute terrorism offences.”

Documents show that top prosecutors greenlighted the terrorism charges on June 9 – two days after the attack.

Mr. Veltman was born on Dec. 20, 2001 – just two days after the Anti-Terrorism Act was proclaimed into law in Canada. The bill to amend the Criminal Code was Parliament’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that killed 3,000 people.

The law allows prosecutors to add terrorism charges onto more standard criminal charges. Yet only recently has the Crown started to do so with respect to murder charges.

In February, 2020, a Toronto man charged with first-degree murder was charged three days later with doing so at the inspiration of a terrorist group. In the same month, a Toronto teenager was charged with murdering a woman. Three months later prosecutors alleged it was terrorism, saying the man was affiliated with an online misogynist movement.

The London case now puts three cases before the courts.

“All three cases show an important trend,” said Leah West, a Carleton University professor. Prosecutors, she said, now believe “that the public interest in denouncing this kind of violence as terrorism, no matter who the perpetrator or victims are, is worth the additional burden.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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