A jail sentence of just three months for a man convicted of promoting hatred against Jews could trivialize the crime, a Quebec court judge said Wednesday as he questioned the Crown’s sentencing recommendation.
Judge Manlio Del Negro said he worries the three-month sentence followed by probation recommended by both the prosecution and the defense doesn’t reflect the seriousness of the crime committed by Gabriel Sohier Chaput, who was once one of the main writers for a neo-Nazi website.
“With respect, the sentence that you’re suggesting trivializes the crime,” Del Negro told the two lawyers in a Montreal courtroom.
He repeatedly asked why prosecutor Patrick Lafrenière — who agreed that the crime was a serious one — had recommended a lower sentence than those imposed in similar cases.
The judge then cited several cases where sentences of six months or a year had been imposed.
Sohier Chaput was convicted of willful promotion of hatred in late January in connection with an article he wrote for the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. While Sohier Chaput was only charged with promoting hatred in connection with a single article, he wrote more than 800 pieces for the site.
Defence lawyer Antonio Cabral said his client is a changed man who is no longer involved with online neo-Nazis and is working to improve himself.
But Del Negro questioned the claim, saying that a pre-sentencing report dated May 11 found Sohier Chaput’s views hadn’t changed.
Probation officer Gabrielle Boulanger-Dumont wrote in the report that in her interview with Sohier Chaput he maintained — as he had in court — that the articles used humour and exaggeration and that his readers wouldn’t find them to be a call for hate.
She said he claimed the writings were intended to make the prevailing discourse in society less polarized, a claim that she didn’t find credible, adding that he doesn’t seem to have understood the impact of his actions and is convinced that his speech was legitimate.
“The only regrets and empathetic thoughts he expressed are directed at his loved ones, who have experienced the direct consequences of his delinquent actions,” she wrote.
She found the lack of emotion in his explanations “all the more disturbing when he describes the pleasure he derived from writing ’things that can’t be said because of history.’”
In court, Sohier Chaput apologized to those who were offended by his writings. “I’m now someone different,” he told the court. “It wasn’t my intention to hurt people’s feelings.”
But Del Negro said he found the apology “opportunistic,” and questioned why Sohier Chaput didn’t express similar sentiments when he testified during his trial.
The judge said he’ll deliver his sentence on Sept. 22.
Outside the courtroom, Jewish groups praised the judge’s decision to consider a tougher sentence.
Eta Yudin, the Quebec vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, who testified during the sentencing hearing about the effect of antisemitism on the Jewish community, said a strong sentence would send the message that antisemitism isn’t acceptable in Quebec and Canada.
“It was a crime, and it continues to be a crime, and it needs to be addressed,” she said. “The lesson has to be that it’s not something you can blow off and walk away from. It has to be that there are real consequences to fomenting hatred, to inciting hatred, to spreading hatred online.”