The man accused of the Christchurch mosque attacks has entered shock guilty pleas, bringing relief to survivors and victims’ families.
Amid extraordinary coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Brenton Tarrant, 29, appeared via video-link in the High Court at Christchurch on Thursday morning and admitted 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and a charge of engaging in a terrorist act.
He’d previously pleaded not guilty to all the charges and was scheduled to stand trial on June 2.
Tarrant, who wore a grey prisoner sweater, was largely silent and emotionless throughout the hearing. He sat alone in a white room with a grey door at Auckland Prison, Paremoremo, where he’s held in maximum security.
The terrorist’s lawyers, Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson, appeared via video-link from another court room.
The names of all 51 people killed were read to Tarrant, before he was asked how he pleaded to the murder charges.
He replied: “Yes, guilty.”
The same process was followed for the attempted murder charges.
Justice Cameron Mander remanded Tarrant in custody, but has not yet set a date for sentencing, when the summary of facts would be made public.
Few people knew of the special hearing, which was only scheduled late Wednesday, on the eve of an unprecedented nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
Six New Zealand journalists attended. Also in court were the imams from both targeted mosques. An-nur (Al Noor) imam Gamal Fouda was visibly upset as the guilty pleas were entered.
The hearing concluded at 10.30am, but the judge suppressed the outcome for an hour to allow victims, who were unaware of the hearing, to be notified.
The decision to hold the hearing amid the national state of emergency was not made lightly.
Earlier in the week Tarrant indicated to counsel that he might change his pleas. A formal request was made on Wednesday that the matter be brought before the court.
Mander said both the Crown and defence asked to have the hearing expedited, despite the severe health restrictions.
The courts were considered an essential public service that was able to deal with “priority proceedings without compromising people’s health”.
The judge said he felt the court had the capacity to safely hear the matter by limiting the number of people in court. In total, 17 people were present.
It was regrettable the Covid-19 restrictions prevented victims from attending, he said, but the imams had been asked to be present to bear witness to the proceedings.
“It was my assessment that taking the defendant’s pleas at this time was the appropriate course in the circumstances,” Mander said.
“The entry of guilty pleas represents a very significant step towards bringing finality to this criminal proceeding, and I considered the need to take the opportunity to progress the matter was particularly acute coming as it has at a time when the risk of further delay as a result of Covid-19 was looming as realistic possibility.”
Mander said the defendant would not be sentenced before the court returned to normal operations.
The defendant had been remanded to a nominal date of May 1. It was hoped a sentencing date would be confirmed in the interim.
“It is fully anticipated that all who wish to attend court for the sentencing hearing will be able to do so in person.”
On March 15 last year, Tarrant drove from his Dunedin home to Christchurch with an arsenal of guns and ammunition he’d amassed since moving from Australia to New Zealand in 2017.
The white supremacist entered Masjid An-nur (also known as the Al Noor Mosque) on Deans Ave as Friday prayers were beginning, about 1.40pm, and opened fire – killing and wounding dozens of people.
He then drove across town to the Linwood Mosque where he continued his shooting spree.
Tarrant was arrested a short time later after his car, a gold Subaru Outback, was rammed off the road by two police officers on Brougham St as he tried to make his way to a third target, though to be a mosque in Ashburton, where he planned to carry out another attack.
When police searched the vehicle they found several guns and petrol bombs.
NZ’S WORST MASS SHOOTING
In total, 51 people were killed in the terrorist attack, the worst mass shooting by an individual in New Zealand history.
Tarrant was the first person to be charged under NZ’s Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.
Omar Abdel-Ghany, whose father Ahmed Gamal Eldin Abdel-Ghany was killed at Masjid An-Nur, said he could not understand what caused Tarrant to change his plea.
“I’m both shocked and relieved. Shocked at the sudden change in plea, relieved that my family and I, along with other victims won’t have to relive it all through the courts.”
Muslim Association of Canterbury spokesman Tony Green said his immediate reaction was one of enormous relief and great gratitude.
“I think the victims will feel a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Our position has always been to let justice take its course, but a trial would have put a lot of pressure on our families. If you look at the anguish caused by the trial of Grace Millane’s killer you can see how bad it would be for 51 families.”
Mustafa Boztas, who lay on the ground inside the Masjid An-nur with a bullet in his leg, pretending to be dead, said from Turkey he always knew Tarrant would be found guilty.
“I feel he basically played with our minds and emotionally upset us more for no reason.”
Boztas said he would have stayed in the country instead of going overseas if he’d known Tarrant was going to plead guilty.
“While it can’t undo the damage it has brought upon our community and country, it gives me hope that this help bring not only justice but some closure to those touched by this event.
“To the families, I hope this brings you peace, and a sense that love can conquer hate. While this closes the criminal proceedings for the shootings, please know there is still a long way to go in recovery for some of us, so thank you for your continued support.”
Yasir Amin, whose father 67-year-old Muhammad Amin Nasir was shot in the back by the gunman shooting from his car, said the guilty pleas were good news.
“It’s good to avoid a trial because we would be reminded of everything, every day of the six week trial. We’ve avoided that mental torture and we’re not in a situation where the outcome is not 100 per cent sure.”
Nasir was to undergo another operation on Monday but the operation was postponed due to Covid-19 measures. He had spent two months in hospital after the shootings and had another 20-day stay in December.
“He is now doing well. He goes for walks and eats well.”
Just about every organ in his father’s body except his heart had been damaged by the shotgun pellets, Amin said.
Nasir was shot about 200 metres from the mosque on Deans Ave. The gunman drove past Amin and his father, who were walking to the mosque along the footpath, when he aimed a shotgun at them from his car. Both ran for their lives but Nasir was shot. Their plight was captured by a motel CCTV camera.
‘HE’S GOT TO PAY THE TIME’
Tarrant’s grandmother, Marie Fitzgerald, had no idea about the plea until called by Stuff.
“I feel sorry he did the crime, but he’s got to pay the time now.”
She declined to comment further.
Victim Support chief executive Kevin Tso said support was ongoing for hundreds of victims who still need help coping with the trauma of the event and rebuilding their lives.
“We’re pleased victims no longer have to face the trauma of the trial.”
The victims had shown remarkable courage and resilience in the face of a heart-breaking, shocking and senseless tragedy, Tso said.
“They have our utmost respect and promise that we will be here for them for as long as they need us.”
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the pleas were a “significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days”.
“I want to acknowledge the victims, their families and the community of Christchurch – the many lives that were changed forever. They have inspired all of us to be a kind and more tolerant community.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it would provide some relief to the many people whose lives were “shattered” on March 15.
“These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial,” she said.