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Jury selection to begin in Canada for a man accused of murdering a Muslim family

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Jury selection begins today in Canada in a case that will test the country's anti-terrorism laws.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. Nathaniel Veltman is accused of killing three generations of the Afzaal family. They were walking in London, Ontario, two years ago when a pickup truck jumped a curb and mowed the family down. Prosecutors say they were targeted because of their Muslim faith.

ESTRIN: Ginella Massa is a freelance journalist based in Canada, and she joins us now. Good morning.

GINELLA MASSA: Hi, good morning.

ESTRIN: So three generations of a family killed. I'm looking at a beautiful photo of them right now. They're dressed in pastel colors. Who were they?

MASSA: Well, Daniel, this was a family that was out for a walk. It was the height of COVID, and you have to remember that Ontario had some of the strictest lockdown laws during the pandemic. Walking outside was pretty much the only thing you could do. As you said, a pickup truck jumping the curb while they were at an intersection. Those who were killed were a mother and father, their 15-year-old daughter and the mother of the man. Most notably, a 9-year-old boy was the only survivor. He was left orphaned - his parents, his sister and his grandmother killed. So this was, you know, an incredibly heinous crime that shook the community two summers ago.

And in the following days, police were quick to call this a hate-motivated attack, that the family was targeted because of their faith. You'll note in that photo, the mother wearing a hijab, a headscarf. They were originally from Pakistan - visibly Muslim, visible minorities. So, you know, this was incredibly troubling to the community and sparked a conversation about Islamophobia and about anti-Muslim hate in Canada because this isn't the first attack of its kind. Four years before - six men killed in a London mosque when a man opened fire.

ESTRIN: And what do we know about the defendant?

MASSA: So the accused, Nathaniel Veltman, he was 20 years old at the time of his arrest. He's facing four murder charges and one attempted murder charge. But he's also facing terrorism-related charges. We know that he was arrested willingly in a mall parking lot about 4 1/2 miles from the scene. He was wearing a military-style helmet when police took him in, and a Dodge Ram truck was found with extensive damage to its front end and smoke coming out of the engine. Now, we don't know what Veltman said to police when he was taken into custody. We don't know if he admitted to killing the family because of their faith. That information remains under a publication ban. But partially unsealed documents do reveal that he may have accessed the dark web to consume white supremacist and hate-related material online. So no doubt that we will learn more about the possible motives as this trial unfolds over the next 12 weeks.

ESTRIN: So what significance does this case have nationally in Canada?

MASSA: So this is the first time that a jury is considering terrorism charges. There were other cases where they were applied, but they never went to trial because the accused pleaded guilty. But what's interesting are the cases where terror laws weren't applied, notably that case of the Quebec mosque killing where six men were killed. So there is this question about this sort of uneven application of the law. Now, it's worth noting that terrorism charges don't necessarily result in harsher sentencing. First-degree murder carries a life sentence with no parole for at least 25 years. So really, it's about the message that it sends as to who is labeled a terrorist and who isn't.

ESTRIN: Ginella Massa, a freelance journalist in Canada, thank you so much.

MASSA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB LAVALLEE'S "EVENFALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Ginella Massa