'Incel-linked' accused in Toronto van attack goes on trial

The defence will argue that because of mental illness, he is not criminally responsible

A van seized by police lies damaged after an incident where a van struck multiple people at a major intersection in north Toronto, Canada, on Apr 23, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

TORONTO, CANADA (AFP) - The trial of a Canadian man linked to the misogynist "incel" movement and accused of killing 10 people by ploughing a van into pedestrians in Toronto begins on Tuesday (Nov 10).

Alek Minassian faces 10 charges of premeditated murder and 16 of attempted murder following the attack in April 2018 that killed eight women and two men, aged 22 to 94 years old, and others badly injured in Canada's largest city.

The Ontario Superior Court trial, which will be live-streamed at Toronto's convention centre, had been scheduled for earlier this year, but was twice postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With restrictions to limit the spread of the illness still in effect, it will now be held by video conference.

The 28-year-old will appear from prison, where he has been held since his arrest on the day of the rampage. The judge, lawyers and witnesses will all connect by videolink.

The general public, meanwhile, will be able to watch proceedings broadcast on large screens at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks and will be heard by a judge, with no jury.

Since he has already admitted to planning and carrying out the carnage, the trial will focus on Minassian's state of mind and criminal responsibility at the time of the attack, not whether he was the perpetrator.

His mother says he suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that includes impaired social interactions or communication.

According to the Toronto Star newspaper, the defence will argue that because of mental illness, he is not criminally responsible.

The attack took place on a warm spring afternoon in the North York neighbourhood of Toronto when huge crowds strolled along busy city streets.

Driving a white rented van, the accused drove at high speeds along two kilometres of roads and sidewalks, indiscriminately targeting passers-by.

'Involuntary celibates'

Minassian was found immediately following the attacks standing by the van with its front end mangled and behaving erratically, video footage aired at the time showed.

He'd stopped his rampage, he told police, only after his windshield was obscured by a splashed drink.

During a four-hour interrogation, he described anger he felt toward women and said this had motivated the attack.

He said he had joined an online community of like-minded men who described themselves as "incels" or "involuntary celibates", whose sexual frustrations led them to embrace a misogynist ideology.

Just prior to the attack, he posted on Facebook from his phone, "The incel rebellion has already begun," and referenced American mass killer Elliot Rodger, who committed a similar attack in California.

While it is a "transnational movement", the incel subculture is mainly based in North America, according to an analyst at Moonshot, a British organisation that works to combat violent extremism online.

Most of them are teenagers or in their twenties, and report suffering from mental illnesses, she said.

"More so than any other extremist groups, the incel community is a product of the Internet. They were born on the Internet," the researcher, who asked not to be named in this story for security reasons, told AFP.

Minassian and Rodger are seen as "heroes" by some members of the community, which is sure to follow Minassian's trial.

A 17-year-old accused of murdering a woman at a massage parlour in a separate case became the first person in Canada to be charged with terrorism in May 2020 over his suspected ties to the "incel" movement.

Minassian, however, has not been charged with terrorism.

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