Court hears legal arguments on whether London attack was terrorist activity

Court hears legal arguments on whether London attack was terrorist activity
Justice Renee Pomerance, left to right, Nathaniel Veltman, and Crown Prosecutor Kim Johnson are seen as the verdict is read in the Superior Court of Justice in Windsor, Ont., in a courtroom sketch made on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould

An Ontario judge heard opposing arguments Tuesday on whether a man’s fatal attack on a Muslim family amounted to terrorism, with the Crown arguing Nathaniel Veltman was a white supremacist with a plan to commit violence while the defence claimed he kept his beliefs to himself.

Veltman, 23, was found guilty in November of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for hitting the Afzaal family with his truck while they were out for a walk on June 6, 2021.

His trial was the first where Canada’s terrorism laws were put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.

Crown lawyer Sarah Shaikh argued Tuesday that evidence in the case showed Veltman is a “right wing white nationalist, and a white supremacist.”

“He has a vision about a new society and a plan to achieve that new society … his plan involves sending a message through a violent act,” she said.

Shaikh argued Veltman’s attack should be considered terrorism because he was motivated by white nationalist ideology at the time and had stated in a manifesto found in his apartment and to police that he wanted to send a message to Muslims that they are not welcome in Canada.

“His desire for revenge against so-called Muslim-on-white or Black-on-white crimes fueled his racist beliefs that the white race is the superior race,” she said.

Veltman had a plan to inspire others to commit similar attacks, Shaikh said, noting Veltman said he was inspired by Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in a pair of New Zealand mosque shootings in 2019.

“The offender’s larger plan is the development of an all-white society,” Shaikh said. “To achieve this plan, he decided to commit brutal violence towards Muslims, killing who he can in an effort to convince the rest to leave.”

Defence lawyer Christopher Hicks argued Veltman’s attack should not be considered terrorism because he didn’t publish his manifesto, which the lawyer noted also contained antisemitic views.

“You have a 20-year-old young man sitting in his studio apartment … just making notes to himself,” Hicks said. “He has no plans to disseminate it, it’s never propagated anywhere. It’s on his computer, and he is virtually the only one to see it.”

Justice Renee Pomerance, who has been presiding over the case, asked Hicks whether Veltman had told police he kept his ideology private so “his plan would not be foiled.” Hicks said Veltman had obsessive compulsive fears that he would be detected by police or federal government intelligence agencies.

Veltman, wearing a wrinkled black suit and shirt, sat in the courtroom listening to the proceedings. He had been greeted earlier in the day by one of his defence lawyers with a fist bump.

Forty-six-year-old Salman Afzaal; his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna; and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in Veltman’s attack, while the couple’s nine-year-old son was seriously hurt but survived.

Jurors at Veltman’s trial had been instructed by Pomerance that they could convict Veltman of first-degree murder if they unanimously agreed prosecutors had established he intended to kill the victims, and planned and deliberated his attack. She also told jurors they could reach that same verdict if they found that the killings were terrorist activity.

The terror component wasn’t a separate charge, and juries don’t explain how they reach their verdict, so it’s unclear what role – if any – the terror allegations played in their decision.

Pomerance said earlier Tuesday that in addition to hearing arguments on the terrorism issue, she’d also be hearing submissions on the sentence Veltman should face for the attempted murder conviction.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse before the hearing began, defence lawyer Peter Ketcheson said Veltman faces a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years on his first-degree murder convictions. The issue of a terrorism designation could become significant if and when Veltman applies for parole, he said.

A decision on the terrorism issue will also be significant for future cases, he said.

“There’s not much case law in the area,” he said. “This is going to be precedent-setting and cases in the future when they’re determining whether or not it is terrorist activity, they will look back on Justice Pomerance’s decision for some guidance.”

During the trial, Veltman testified he had been considering using his pickup truck, which he bought a month earlier, to carry out an attack and looked up information online about what happens when pedestrians get struck by cars at various speeds.

He told the jury that he felt an “urge” to hit the Afzaal family after seeing them walking on a sidewalk, adding that he knew they were Muslims from the clothes they were wearing and he noticed that the man in the group had a beard.

Jurors had also seen video of Veltman telling a detective that his attack had been motivated by white nationalist beliefs. Court also heard that he wrote a manifesto in the weeks before the attack, describing himself as a white nationalist and peddling unfounded conspiracy theories about Muslims.

Veltman’s trial was heard in Windsor, Ont., but the sentencing proceedings, including victim impact statements, are taking place in London.

By Maan Alhmidi in London.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2024.  

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