Trial of man charged with running down Muslim family in Canada begins

Authorities say Nathaniel Veltman deliberately targeted Muslims in deadly, hate-fuelled attack in Ontario in 2021.

Someone holds a sign reading, 'Islamophobia Kills' during a rally in Toronto, Canada against Islamophobia
The deadly attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario, in June 2021 sent shockwaves across Canada and spurred calls to tackle hate and Islamophobia [File: Alex Filipe/Reuters]

Muslim community members and rights advocates across Canada are calling for justice as the trial of a man charged with deliberately running down a Muslim family in the province of Ontario in 2021 kicked off.

Jury selection began on Tuesday in the trial of Nathaniel Veltman, who faces four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for the attack in London, a city about 200km (125 miles) west of Toronto.

Veltman pleaded not guilty to all the charges during the Ontario Superior Court of Justice hearing in the city of Windsor, local media reported on Tuesday afternoon.

Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Salman’s mother, Talat, 74, were killed on June 6, 2021, after being run over with a pick-up truck while out for a walk.

The couple’s nine-year-old son was seriously injured.

Authorities said at the time that the family was “targeted because of their Islamic faith” and they have since charged Veltman with “terrorism” offences.

“We will be watching this trial closely,” the National Council of Canadian Muslims advocacy group said in a statement on Monday afternoon.

People hug at a makeshift memorial to a Muslim family that was fatally run down in London, Ontario, Canada in 2021
The killings in London, Ontario, renewed trauma for Muslims across Canada [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

“Justice should be served,” relative Shaukat Rizvi told the Toronto Star newspaper before this week’s legal proceedings. “We have confidence in the Canadian justice system.”

The killings renewed trauma for Muslim community members across Canada, many of whom were still reeling in the aftermath of a deadly 2017 assault on a Quebec City mosque and a fatal stabbing at another mosque in Toronto in 2020.

It also prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to hold a national summit on Islamophobia, and in January of this year, Canada appointed its first special representative to tackle the issue.

The representative, Amira Elghawaby, said Tuesday would be “heavy for the relatives of the Afzasal family and their surviving son”, as well as members of Muslim communities in London and across Canada.

“We will not forget: Talat, Madiha, Yumnah, Salman,” Elghawaby wrote on social media.

In June, the Ontario government announced it was investing about $372,000 (500,000 Canadian dollars) to help London develop an anti-hate public education campaign and an online library of resources.

London Mayor Josh Morgan said at the time that the investment would help “promote acceptance” in the city. “Not only must we speak out against hatred, we must also take decisive and tangible action – and that’s exactly what this funding allows us to do,” Morgan said.

Veltman’s trial in Windsor is expected to last 12 weeks, Canadian media outlets have reported.

“The trial will mark the first time since Canada passed its anti-terrorism laws that terrorism will be argued before a jury in a first-degree murder case,” the London Free Press also said on Tuesday.

Veltman’s lawyer, Christopher Hicks, said in 2021 that his client has the “presumption of innocence”.

“Every person, including Nathaniel Veltman, has the presumption of innocence. That’s very important,” Hicks said at the time.

Source: Al Jazeera