A Quebec City judge has sentenced a man to 20 years in prison for setting his ex-partner on fire after years of physical and psychological abuse, a decision the prosecutor described as major for the province.
Frej Haj Messaoud, 41, pleaded guilty to attempted murder in November, shortly before a trial was expected to be held in the case.
Messaoud doused his partner, Wiem Haj Amor, in gasoline and lit her on fire on Aug. 9, 2019, as she was grabbing things from the trunk of her car outside her home in Quebec City's Saint-Sauveur neighbourhood.
Her mother and her six-year-old daughter witnessed Amor's agony from their balcony as a neighbour tried to help her by removing her clothing.
Amor experienced burns covering more than 50 per cent of her body and was in an induced coma for a month while undergoing a series of skin grafts. Doctors told the court that Amor would not have survived if she had not received care so quickly.
In his written decision, Quebec Superior Court judge Guy Deblois said Amor had lived through "the worst pain a human being can experience" and that the consequences of what happened to her are "countless."
He said the crime was of an "indescribable violence" and that Messaoud clearly wanted Amor to experience "atrocious pain."
Amor, who was clutching the hand of a friend, began to cry when the 20-year sentence was delivered.
Messaoud, who has been in custody since he was arrested Aug. 10, 2019, has nearly 16 years of that sentence left to serve.
Speaking to media at the Quebec City courthouse afterward, Crown prosecutor Matthieu Rochette said he was satisfied, though his team had requested life imprisonment because of the lack of mitigating factors in Messaoud's case.
"This is a major decision in Quebec. On matters of attempted murder on an ex-partner, it's an unequivocal message," Rochette said.
Courts asked to prioritize deterrence
Myralie Roussin, a criminal lawyer who was not involved in the case, said it was the longest sentence she knew of in a case of attempted murder of an ex-partner.
Roussin said prison sentences in such cases typically run between four to 15 years but rarely reach 20.
"It's a severe sentence, given the circumstances," Roussin said, adding that the sentence's length may be due to the context in which the attack took place. Though Messaoud had never been found guilty of a crime before, the judge said it was clear he had been abusive to Amor for years and did not show serious remorse.
A federal Liberal omnibus bill, Bill C-75, which became law in July 2019, added clauses to the Criminal Code calling on judges to consider intimate partner violence — including on a former partner — an aggravating factor in crimes and to prioritize deterring potential offenders.
Last year, 26 women were murdered in Quebec, one of the worst years on record. Several of those deaths are believed to have been caused by intimate partner violence.
Deblois detailed the abuse and control Messaoud inflicted upon Amor after they were married in 2012 in Tunisia, before emigrating to Canada.
Messaoud was physically and psychologically violent and exercised "total control and surveillance" over Amor's daily life and movements, preventing her from doing anything by herself, including contacting her parents abroad.
After the pair separated in July 2019, Messaoud began stalking Amor on her way to and from her new job as a receptionist.
In November, Amor spoke to the court about the suffering she endured at the hands of Messaoud before the crime and how it altered her and her young children's lives afterward.
Amor described how she felt a hand cover her mouth as she was standing at the back of her car that day, and soon recognized it was Messaoud. He threw a liquid on her she at first thought was acid, but the smell of gasoline made her realize what was coming, she said.
'I let go, hoping he would help me'
Her reflex was to grab his hand. "I let go, hoping he would help me," Amor recounted at the time through tears. Instead, she saw him running away.
Quebec provincial police arrested Messaoud the next day 150 kilometres away, in Drummondville.
Amor said she and her children had nightmares and that her son asks "why the fire is still on my body," referring to her scars.
Amor also spoke of the control her ex-husband still has, even while incarcerated, saying she worried about his reaction to the clothes her daughter wears.
"I don't want [my children] to be victims, too," she said.
When Messaoud pleaded guilty that month, he asked if Amor would accept an apology. In her victim impact statement, Amor explained why she would not.
"I stayed with him, always hearing requests for forgiveness. In the end, I almost died," she said, ending the statement.