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Justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done. 

Yesterday in a packed London, Ontario courtroom, we witnessed justice in action. The trial of the terrorist who, on June 6, 2021, in a single act of terrorism, killed Our London Family and orphaned a little boy has now reached finality with the rendering of the judge’s reasons and sentence. 

In a well-reasoned, powerful, and moving decision, Regional Senior Justice Pomerance found the acts of the hateful terrorist who murdered the Afzaal family to be terrorist activity under the Criminal Code of Canada. She said, “He killed them because they were Muslim.” In rendering her reasons, she intentionally refused to refer to him by name, so as not to give him notoriety or a platform. Instead, she referred to him as “the offender” throughout her decision. As her honour said, “While it may be a symbolic gesture, symbolism is important.” It is the Afzaal name we should remember, not the offender’s.

Her endorsement, read aloud in the Courtroom, provided closure to this nightmarish chapter for the family of the slain victims, the Muslim community, and the community at large.  

This is the first time in Canadian history that a white supremacist act of violence was designated terrorism. 

This decision provides both an important legal precedent for the legal community and a powerful statement of validation for the Muslim community. In a time in the world where we are seeing so much hatred and violence against Muslims, it was quite powerful to hear those words aloud from a judge in a Canadian Courtroom. 

Often the criminal justice system does not provide victims with the opportunity to be seen and heard. It often does not do the victims justice because they are not the focus of the proceeding – rather, the trial is focused on the offence and the offender. In this case, the trial was quite difficult for the family and community: retraumatizing many, likely causing vicarious trauma to those who participated and watched, and was long, drawn-out, and at times confusing and frustrating. However, as we left the courtroom yesterday, the overwhelming feeling from the family and the broader Muslim community, was gratitude. RSJ Pomerance saw them and heard them. “It is hoped that the trial process, in some small way, facilitates the healing process by firmly denouncing the offender’s actions as an intolerable affront to our moral, ethical and legal standards,” the judge said. The sentencing hearing tries to flip the script and focus on the victims. In this sentencing hearing, the Court allowed more than 70 individual and community victim impact statements to be read aloud in Court over two days in January, with many more filed with the Court, which the judge read and considered. The importance and impact of this can’t be underscored enough. 

While the finding of terrorism is mostly symbolic and declaratory, that declaration and symbolism are integral to affirming that hatred and terrorism, which seek to undermine our values and way of life, to attack our most fundamental of human rights – the right to live in peace and safety and security – and is, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario has said, “an existential threat to the Canadian community and Canadian way of life,” not to be tolerated, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator and the victims.  

This declaration won’t, practically speaking, change anything in this case – the offender will serve concurrent sentences of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years; and the little boy will forever live with the knowledge that someone killed his whole family, leaving him an orphan, and leaving him injured, simply because of what they wore, what they looked like, and what they believe…because they are Muslim. But I hope that one day he comes to realize the power of the words from the Court yesterday – that there is good in the world, that the law will work how it should, and that justice does prevail. 

As a Muslim and a lawyer, I appreciated this decision in so many ways, but perhaps the most important aspect was that it was a wonderful example to justice system participants and the public of how justice can both be done and be seen to be done. 

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