'Example-setting' 20-year sentence for Quebec man who set ex-wife on fire in attempted murder

Two police officers equipped with a fire extinguisher escorted Frej Haj-Messaoud, accused of setting his ex-wife on fire (Aug. 11, 2019, Steve Jolicoeur)

WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of intimate-partner violence

A Quebec man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for setting his wife on fire in the midst of their separation -- one of the longest sentences ever imposed for domestic attempted murder in the province, sending "a clear message," according to the Crown prosecutors' office.

Frej Haj Messaoud, now in his early 40s, pleaded guilty to attempted murder over the attack, which took place in summer 2019 on a street in central Quebec City.

His wife was 29 at the time and suffered severe burns on over 30 per cent of her body, only surviving because a neighbour helped her remove her gasoline-soaked clothes.

The violence also played out right in front of the victim's mother and her -- as well as the attacker's -- young daughter, noted Justice Guy de Blois in his written ruling. The children, now around eight and nine years old, still have nightmares.

"The crime committed is of an indescribable violence," de Blois wrote. "Trying to kill a human being, his ex-wife, by fire testifies to the desire to make her suffer excruciating pain while wanting to mark her for life."

Messaoud's lawyer argued that his guilty plea should earn him some leniency in sentencing. But de Blois thought otherwise, handing down an "example-setting sentence of 20 years in prison, one of the most severe sentences imposed in this matter in Quebec," said Crown spokesperson Audrey Roy-Cloutier in a statement.

Aside from some hoped-for ramifications for future cases, "we would like to highlight the courage and resilience shown by the victim throughout the legal proceedings," she wrote.

The Crown's office hopes "the support offered and the sentence imposed will contribute to her recovery."

The defence proposed seven to 15 years in prison, but the prosecution argued for life imprisonment.

Anything over 14 years is considered an extremely stiff sentence for domestic attempted murders, wrote de Blois. But with aggravating factors, that's appropriate, he wrote -- and those factors were abundant.

The couple met in Tunisia in 2011 when the woman was 20 years old, and her future husband was about a decade older.

He was also born in Tunisia but had already moved to Canada at that point. Trained as an electrician, he later became a taxi driver.

After the two married in 2012, she came to Canada to join him. In the two following years, they had two children, a boy and a girl.

Their life in Canada was extremely troubled, with Messaoud exerting "total control" over his wife's daily life, with the first signs of violence appearing when she resisted this, de Bois wrote in his ruling.

She "could not speak to her parents if the accused wasn't present, because she didn't have a phone," the judge wrote. After using Skype, "he cut her access" following a fight. He controlled who she saw, where she went and her finances, using her money "for his own needs."

As violence escalated, police were frequently called to their home. Messaoud, in turn, "tried to camouflage" his violence by portraying her as the aggressor and accusing her of violence against their children, trying to "undermine the credibility" of his wife before youth protection agents.

She went to stay at shelters with her children eight or nine times before the three left permanently, in 2018, to stay at a shelter. In 2019, divorce proceedings were underway, and the wife had found work as a secretary. She met another man that she had seen a few times that August.

Messaoud told his probation officer that he felt "a whirlwind of negative feelings" around this "rejection," also seeing it as an attack on his "masculine authority."

In the months leading up to the incident, he harassed and even stalked his ex-wife, one time confronting her on the street to call her a "whore."

He told the probation officer that he felt "she had ruined his life, so he would therefore ruin hers," deciding that inflicting severe burns would reflect the suffering he felt he was going through.

The attack on Aug. 9, as she related it, made your "blood run cold," the judge wrote in his sentencing.

She had arrived home from work at about 8 p.m. and was parked outside her home on Arago St., leaning into the trunk, with her daughter and mother outside on their balcony.

"She felt a hand being put over her mouth" and recognized it as her ex-husband's, the judge wrote. She felt a liquid being poured over her head, "which she feared at first was acid," before smelling gas.

Messaoud set her on fire and fled the scene, "leaving her for dead," the judge wrote. Meanwhile, a neighbour came to her aid, stripping off her clothes and saving her life before an ambulance arrived.

She found herself naked and screaming in pain on the street in front of passers-by, begging paramedics to "put her to sleep" as soon as they arrived.

She was put in an induced coma for a month while undergoing many skin grafts, and her rehabilitation is ongoing. Her son was afraid to come near her at first, she testified. Her mother testified as well that she is "a different person" from the joyful, lively young woman she used to be.

Messaoud's lawyer argued that his remorse over the crime and his difficult childhood, among other factors, should sway the judge during sentencing.

He did grow up in a dysfunctional family, the judge acknowledged, with a violent father dominating amid a "climate of fear."

But there were many aggravating factors to the crime as well, including how carefully planned it was, his long mistreatment of his wife and the fact that she was the mother of his children, said the ruling.

While Messaoud's lawyer said he had a low risk of reoffending, the presentencing report found otherwise, the judge wrote, with Messaoud found to have an "embryonic" understanding of his problematic behaviours. He was found to have a high risk to reoffend in the context of another relationship.

Messaoud bears "the highest degree of responsibility" for the crime, de Blois wrote. He also felt that the objective of deterrence and denunciation had to take precedence.

"Domestic violence is a scourge that must be firmly denounced," he wrote. "Everybody, whoever they are, has the right to leave a relationship without fearing becoming a victim of violence."

The Quebec Crown's office "took note" of the ruling, they said in a statement Wednesday.

"The court is sending a clear message that reflects in particular the social disapproval of such behaviours committed in a context of marital violence," wrote Crown spokesperson Audrey Roy-Cloutier.

The Quebec Crown believes the stiff sentence will not only lead to more public denunciation of this kind of crime, but will also promote "the participation of victims in the judicial process and to preserving public confidence in the administration of justice, she said.

Quebec has seen an unusually high rate of intimate-partner murders in the last two years, around double its normal rate.

In 2021, there were about 20 such murders, with the media's unofficial count at 18 and provincial statistics reportedly slightly higher.

Meanwhile, in 2020, Quebec reached a shocking total of 21 intimate-partner murders.

In 2019, by comparison, there were 11. The previous yearly average was generally about 12 per year, already considered much too high by advocates, who have pleaded for more resources for shelters and emergency resources.

The province in the last year has put more funding into the area, including $222 million last year, and did ultimately create an emergency fund that could be used for taxi money, hotels or other urgent help without much red tape attached.

Many of the most high-profile recent cases are still before the court, including 24-year-old Romane Bonnier's murder on a downtown street last October.

Another attack that horrified the province resulted this winter in a life sentence. The ex-spouse of 28-year-old Myriam Dallaire was sentenced to 18 years without eligibility before parole for murdering her and her 60-year-old mother, Sylvie Bisson, in their Laurentians home in February 2021 with an axe. 

SUPPORT NETWORK

Victims of domestic violence can contact SOS violence conjugale at 1-800-363-9010.

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