There is an interesting debate in Canada over what are called ‘mandatory minimums’, i.e. a government/court-imposed set of rules on how crimes are to be treated. This is an attempt to establish minimum sentences for certain offences, supposedly tied to how society views certain criminal acts. In jurisdictions that have such strictures judges are bound to follow them (or at least that is how I understand this issue). In the opinion of the Globe and Mail, Canada is ‘drunk’ ‘on mandatory minimums. The argument goes on.
What, then, should be the minimum penalty for terrorism? Should it be life? Should it depend on whether the terrorist was successful in his or her act (assuming it was not a suicide attack as it is hard to sentence a dead person)? Does it matter if the plot was foreign-directed or financed? Do different types of terrorism – Islamist, far right, etc. – warrant different treatment? Does anyone know?
In the public’s mind terrorism is a very serious offence. It is a tactic to sow fear and panic and often seems to strike random citizens at random times (hence the panic). A safe conclusion would be to assume that populations want convicted terrorists to receive long sentence – life – or even the death penalty. There do not seem to be too many terrorist advocacy groups, although one could argue that Canada has a few, the ones I have little time for.
It is also not unusual for the loved ones of a convicted terrorist – or anyone convicted of a crime for that matter – to seek clemency or a reduced prison sentence. In fact, it would be odd if this were not to be the case. In two recent instances Canadians or those tied to Canada have been found guilty of terrorist offences and have sought to throw themselves on the mercy of the court, although perhaps not the court of public opinion. Abdul Rahman Al-Bahnasawy , a 24-year old from Mississauga, has been found guilty of plotting an attack on New York’s Times Square and the subway system and has admitted that he hated the US for its foreign actions and wanted to punish it. Nevertheless, he claims to have had drug problems (not a necessary cause) and mental health issues (not a necessary cause) and wants a ‘second chance’.
In Winnipeg , the grandmother of former U of Manitoba student Muhanad Al Farekh describes her grandson, who went to Afghanistan to fight with Al Qaeda, as a ‘wonderful person, loving, caring and kind (quick! When was the last time you read of an Al Qaeda terrorist as ‘loving, caring and kind’?). His family is seeking leniency.
The problem for these two young men is that while the former is Canadian and the latter American, they were both tried in US courts and the country that witnessed 9/11 is not exactly ‘soft on terrorism’. Sentences for terrorist offences tend to be very, very long in the US and that is what the US people probably expect and demand. If I were a betting man I would think the odds of either individual seeing the light of day anytime soon are remote.
So, what about Canada? Our record is mixed. Some terrorists receive lengthy jail terms (Momin Khawaja, Zakarias Amara) while others get off essentially scot-free (several of the members of the 2005-6 Toronto 18 cell were released after conviction with ‘time served’). I wonder how Canadians feel about this. If my take on recent polling in the Omar Khadr settlement case is any indication, they don’t like it.
We must treat terrorism as a serious offence against what we stand for in a liberal secular democracy run by the rule of law. Those who seek to frighten us into submission or into making decisions we would not normally make must receive adequate punishment. Yes, those who are incarcerated for decades must be afforded every right and service that prisoners get, and terrorsist prisoners must be forced to undergo rehabilitation and de-radicalisation, whatever those two processes are and once we figure out what works and what doesn’t. But that happens after conviction and sentencing, not before. To give terrorists or wannabe terrorists a ‘second chance’ is a travesty. Terrorists, after all, seldom give their victims a second chance, do they?