Do terrorism sentences in Canada serve as a deterrent?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on March 11, 2019

We have laws for a reason, right? Over the centuries the Western world has developed a series of traditions such as presumed innocence, the need to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to be tried before one’s peers, the right to a defence, etc. Our laws supposedly reflect our values and the need to protect them from those who undermine them. To this we have to add time-worn moral attitudes such as “thou shall not steal” and “thou shall not murder”, acts which we believe should be punished in some way.

We also hope that the laws we have established and the penalties we have attached to contraventions of those laws will act as a deterrent. Some people will refrain from killing if they know that in their country they in turn will be put to death (capital punishment). But if people perceive that the punishment is light, or that they will ‘get away’ with their crimes, it stands to reason that they will engage in such illegal behaviour more often.

What then should we make of Canada’s terrorism laws? These have been developing over the past few decades, i.e. in the post 9/11 period (our Anti-Terrorism Act dates from December 2001), and successive governments have tabled legislation here and there to amend the Canadian Criminal Code sections that deal with terrorist offences (sections 83.1ff). There has been a dog’s breakfast of terrorism rulings over time, ranging from acquittals to life sentences. All of which leads to the question: are we treating terrorism seriously enough?

A recent trial brought this issue to the fore. Pamir Hakimzadah was bent on joining Islamic State (IS), and according to testimony was convinced that
“all non-Muslims should be killed” and that “Canada should be under Islamic law.”
He was also of the belief that “he would be fulfilling the wishes of God to kill non-Muslims.” His plans to hook up with IS were thwarted and he was returned to Canada, where he was arrested, charged with one count of terrorism and put on trial.

The Crown sought a six-year sentence while the defence countered with three and a half years. In the end he received four years plus three probation and, in light of time served, will be on the streets this year. He has also been willing to commit to a ‘deradicalisation’ program, whatever that is supposed to mean.

This decision comes on the heels of a similar one where another Canadian, Kevin Omar Mohamed, who actually fought with IS, was given a four and a half year sentence (including two and a half years for time served) and will also be out soon, despite a National Parole Board assessment that he represents a high risk (he also has shown no signs of recanting his terrorist views).

What message are we sending to Canadians and our allies when it comes to terrorism? That it’s ok? That it is not very serious? That those found guilty get a ‘do over’? I am worried that we are sleepwalking into scenarios where people ideologically committed to violence in the name of an aberrant interpretation of Islam are being let go to either continue their violent ways or convince others to venture down a similar path.

I am not calling for draconian punishment, just a sober realisation on what terrorism is and what threat it poses to us in Canada. We thankfully have a very low incidence of terrorists and terrorism but this does not mean we should dismiss the grave nature of the threat from the very small number of Canadians who do radicalise to terrorism violence. These ridiculously short sentences do nothing to create confidence among us. Instead we have elected to defer to counselling and ‘deradicalisation’ despite the alarming lack of evidence that any of these programs work.

It is time to treat terrorism with the harshness it deserves. Those that have chosen to kill or maim for ideological purposes need to be told – forcefully – that our society does not tolerate these beliefs or these activities. What we are doing now is woefully inadequate and a slap in the face of the many victims of terrorism, here and around the world. Longer sentences for terrorism offences please – now!

Phil Gurski is the author of four books on terrorism, the latest of which is “An End to the War on Terrorism’.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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