‘They never harmed anyone’: Sentencing underway for man who murdered Muslim family

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The sentencing hearing for Nathaniel Veltman is taking place in London, Ont. Veltman was found guilty in November of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for striking a Muslim family with his truck while they were out for a walk. Sean O’Shea reports. – Jan 4, 2024

Warning: Readers may find the contents of this story disturbing.

Close family members of the Afzaals, the Muslim family murdered by Nathaniel Veltman in a vehicle attack, are sharing stories of loss, grief, and pain but also of faith and resilience at a sentencing hearing in London, Ont.

Two days have been set aside for victim impact statements alone due to the sheer number of those willing to share how the acts of June 6, 2021 have changed their lives.

Thursday’s proceedings involved relatives of the Afzaals, many of whom described symptoms of anxiety and depression in the wake of the attack as well as fearing for their safety and the safety of other visible minorities across Canada. At the same time, many mentioned that their faith in Islam has strengthened and that the guilty verdict has brought a sense of justice.

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Four members of the Afzaal family were killed and a little boy orphaned when Veltman drove his truck “pedal to the metal” into the group out for an evening walk on June 6, 2021. Veltman told police hours later that he had decided he was “going to commit a terrorist attack” and “hoped to inspire more young men.”

Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna, and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the attack, while the couple’s nine-year-old son was seriously hurt but survived.

The Afzaals were remembered as kind, goodhearted and hard-working members of the community. Salman was a physiotherapist and his wife Madiha was in the process of getting her PhD in engineering. Yumna was a budding artist, practicing murals in the family’s garage. Talat was a loving, beautiful soul who never thought badly of anyone, family said.

Madiha’s mother, Tabinda Bukhari, was the first to speak. She told court that the attack came while she was already grieving the loss of her husband of 47 years, who had died six months prior.

“Being thousands of miles away made it all the more difficult to know what had happened,” she said.

“They never harmed anyone. Why would anyone do that to them?”

At the funeral, she said she felt her heart would stop when she saw not one, but four coffins. At the same time, seeing hundreds of people lining the streets and hundreds more in the mosque “restored my faith in humanity.”

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Bukhari uprooted herself, leaving Pakistan with a single suitcase, in order to be there for the surviving Afzaal boy.

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“To hide my tears, I just hug him tight. Sometimes I tell him that ‘you look like your mom or dad when you do this or that.’”

Salman’s siblings also addressed court, sharing the devastation of losing their mother, brother, sister-in-law and niece all at once.

“I once asked (my sister-in-law) Madiha what she liked best about Canada and she replied, ‘safety,’” one brother said, adding that the attack has left his children questioning their identity and whether they belong in Canada.

His daughter, who had been planning to go to Western University, switched to another school, unable to bear the thought of living in London without her aunt and uncle.

Salman’s sister, Ayesha Shaukat, addressed Veltman directly in referencing Talat’s death, saying, “You took something incredibly precious from us: a mother’s love. Something you may never comprehend.”

Madiha’s younger brother told court that he cannot bring himself to delete their contacts from WhatsApp, but their numbers have been reassigned.

He also shared his fears for the safety of his family and community, and urged those with hate in their hearts to make connections instead of hurting someone who doesn’t look the same.

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Still, he said his faith has not wavered and that “Islam teaches us to be patient and not lose hope,” that it has given them strength to make the situation bearable, but that the pain will never go away.

His wife, Sidra Jamal, said if Veltman had taken “one second” to talk to Salman, the attack never would have happened.

“Salman would have, in his usual manner, shared some kind words, offered him some tea.”

Jamal recalled the wails of agony from Yumna’s friends at the funeral, then just 14 and 15 years old, which mirrored “the pain I feel in my soul when I think about Yumna.”

And for the brother, son and grandson who survived, “all innocence was robbed that day.”

“In one split second, his family, his home, his life, even his autonomy to walk was taken away from him.”

Then, addressing Veltman, she added, “You have stolen everything from him. Everything.”

Madiha’s sister Arjumand Ghani, just a year older, told court “the world as I knew it prior to this horrendous incident does not exist anymore.”

“How can I lose all of them at once…. Did the killer know them? But I instantly answered the latter one myself. If he knew my family, he could never have hurt those gentle souls.”

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Her voice breaking, she shared how Yumna’s birth made her an aunt, and that her prayers of having family closer to her – she had moved to the United States – were answered when the family moved to Canada.

She spoke about how the attack has left her less patient and struggling just to get through her daily routines.

“Due to this heinous crime, I am no longer my old self,” she said.

However, she was among many Thursday morning who said their faith has strengthened in the time since the attack.

“I am a stronger Muslim now than I was prior to this incident,” she said.

The Afzaals were Hina Islam’s only family in London. Madiha was Hina’s niece but was more like a friend, sister and ally, she told court Thursday afternoon.

She shared a tragic story of the night of the attack, saying that her three children were going to go over to the Afzaals’ home, but plans changed at the last moment.

While coming home from dinner with her husband, they saw an ambulance in their neighbourhood. She told her husband she always worries for their children when she sees an ambulance in the area and so when it turned away, she told him, “Thank God they are safe.”

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“I carry the burden of the suffocating guilt of those insensitive words every day. Why didn’t I pray for them instead?”

Whenever she sees an ambulance now, she prays that God will protect whoever needs it as well as their families.

She said the attack stole the laughter and joy from her home, but “with the help of our faith and ongoing professional therapy, genuine moments of laughter are returning to our home.”

Finally, she addressed Madiha, Salman, Talat and Yumna directly, saying that if they can hear her, “I reaffirm my promise to you, that while my peace is shattered, I will always strive to protect” the peace of the surviving boy.

Veltman, now 23, was found guilty last November following more than two months of proceedings in a historic trial that marked the first time Canada’s terrorism laws were put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial. However, the jury’s decision did not reveal whether they concluded that Veltman’s actions reached the threshold for first-degree murder due to terrorist activity, due to being planned and deliberate or both.

The question of terrorism may be answered during the sentencing portion of the trial, as the judge may make a decision about whether the murders constitute an act of terror as part of potential aggravating factors in the case.

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Regardless, under the Criminal Code of Canada, a conviction of first-degree murder comes with an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.

The sentencing proceedings are being held in London, where the attack occurred, while the trial was held in Windsor, Ont.

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