Quebec mosque shooting suspect changes mind, pleads guilty

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2017 file photo shot through an obstruction Alexandre Bissonnette arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City. Bissonnette, accused in the slayings of six men at a Quebec City mosque has pleaded not guilty. Bissonnette entered the pleas in a courtroom Monday, March 26, 2018, ahead of pretrial motions to be debated this week. (Mathieu Belanger/The Canadian Press via AP, Pool, File)
Manon Marchand and Raymond Bissonnette, left, the parents of Alexandre Bissonnette, the man accused in the slayings at a Quebec City mosque last year, leave the courthouse under escort after court proceedings, Monday, March 26, 2018 in Quebec City. The man accused in the slayings of six men at a Quebec City mosque has pleaded not guilty. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP)

QUEBEC CITY — The man accused in the slayings of six men at a Quebec City mosque asked for forgiveness Wednesday after changing his mind and pleading guilty.

Alexandre Bissonnette faced six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder from a shooting rampage during evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in January 2017. More than 50 people were at the center, and six men aged between 39 and 60 were killed.

"Every minute of my existence I bitterly regret what I did, the lives I have destroyed, the pain and suffering I have caused to so many people, without forgetting the members of my own family," Alexandre Bissonnette said as he read out a letter in court. "I am ashamed of what I did."

The 28-year-old spoke to the court shortly after a judge accepted his guilty pleas. Many people in the courtroom burst out sobbing and held hands as the judge confirmed the guilty pleas.

Bissonnette originally pleaded not guilty to the 12 charges during a court appearance Monday morning but a few hours later announced he wanted to plead guilty.

Superior Court Justice Francois Huot refused to accept the pleas Monday afternoon pending a psychiatric assessment of the accused to ensure he fully understood the consequences of his decision. Huot placed a publication ban on the Monday afternoon proceedings. He accepted the 12 guilty pleas Wednesday.

The fact Bissonnette was never charged with any terrorism-related counts angered many people, particularly those in the Muslim community. On Wednesday, the accused addressed the terrorism angle.

"Despite what has been said about me, I am neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe," he told the court. "Rather, I am someone who was overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair."

On Monday, Bissonnette said he wanted to plead guilty in order to "avoid a trial and for the victims to not have to relive this tragedy."

Bissonnette told the judge then that he had been thinking for some time of pleading guilty but that he was missing certain pieces of evidence, which were relayed Sunday.

When Huot asked him if he was fully aware of what he was doing, Bissonnette replied, "Yes."

Huot asked Bissonnette whether he knew he would be getting a life sentence and he answered, "I understand."

Huot also asked if he understood he could receive consecutive sentences, meaning 150 years of prison.

"I know," Bissonnette replied in a low voice.

Psychiatrist Sylvain Faucher said Bissonnette "is fit to stand trial and to plead what he wants to plead."

"He did not want to be the perpetrator of another collective drama," said Faucher, who met with Bissonnette on Monday evening.

Many members of Quebec City's Muslim community were present in court Monday and Wednesday.

Amir Belkacemi, whose 60-year-old father, Khaled Belkacemi, was among those killed, said no one wanted to live the trauma again.

"That the trial won't have to take place, it's a good thing for us, it's a good thing for everyone in the community," Amir Belkacemi told reporters. "Very relieved."

Jury selection had been scheduled to start April 3 and the trial to last two months.

Sentencing arguments will take place at a later date.

Those who monitor extremist groups in Quebec described Bissonnette, a French-Canadian university student, as someone who took extreme nationalist positions at Laval University and on social media. He was a supporter of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and U.S. President Donald Trump.

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