New Zealand mosque gunman pleads guilty to murder, terrorism charges

New Zealand mosque gunman pleads guilty to murder, terrorism charges
The gunman who massacred worshippers at two New Zealand mosques last year unexpectedly pleaded guilty to the charges laid out against him.
3 min read
26 March, 2020
The gunman pleaded not guilty to the charges last year. [AFP]
The man who slaughtered 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last year unexpectedly pleaded guilty to all charges on Thursday, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Australian white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism at the Christchurch High Court, the AP reported.

Tarrant pleaded not guilty to the charges last year. His trial was rescheduled to begin in June so as not to conflict with Ramadan.

The sudden turn in the case surprised survivors and relatives, according to the AP, and brought relief to people across New Zealand. Many feared Tarrant would attempt to promote his views during his trial.

In a deadly attack that shook New Zealand, Tarrant stormed Christchurch's Al-Noor and Linwood mosques, opened fire on worshippers and livestreamed his actions on Facebook. The gunman also published a 74-page manifesto prior to the attacks.

The shootings shook the nation, prompting wide scale changes. New Zealand tightened its gun laws, banning military style semi-automatic rifles.

Tarrant's change in plea came less than two weeks after the anniversary of the March 15, 2019 attacks.

"Honestly, I’m still trying to process what just happened,” Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hussein was killed in the attack on the Al Noor mosque, told the AP. “I feel conflicted.”

On the one hand, Al-Umari said she wanted to find out more details about what happened at the trial, but on the other hand was feeling relieved about not having to face the trauma of sitting through it.

Temel Atacocugu, who survived being shot nine times during the attack at Al Noor, told the AP he was surprised by the turn of events and hoped the judge would set an example at the sentencing by imposing the harshest punishment in the country’s history so as to help ensure nothing like it would happen again.

"I’m happy that he has accepted that he is guilty," said Atacocugu.

Read more: One year on, Muslims still feel unsafe after New Zealand mosque massacre

Tarrant faces life imprisonment. He is the first person to be found guilty of terrorism in New Zealand under laws passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, according to the AP. A sentencing date has not yet been set. 

According to the AP, the change in plea was announced at a hastily arranged court hearing in the midst of New Zealand's four-week lockdown as part of the country's COVID-19 response.

The lockdown saw Tarrant appearing in court via video link from his Auckland jail cell. Only a handful of people were allowed inside the courtroom, including the imams of the two mosques that were attacked.

Judge Mander said he wanted to quickly move ahead with the hearing, especially with COVID-19 restrictions threatening delays to the court schedule, according to the AP.

Tarrant, who was wearing a gray prison sweater, showed little emotion as he pleaded guilty and gave no indication as to why he changed his pleas, the AP reported.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was widely praised for her compassionate response to the Muslim community after the attacks, said it was "deeply disappointing" the victims didn’t get to attend the hearing.

But she said there was "a certain sense of relief that the whole nation, but particularly our Muslim community, are being spared from a trial that could have otherwise acted as a platform."

A national rememberance service for the massacre's victims this month was cancelled by officials over coronavirus fears.

Earlier this month, New Zealand police arrested a 19-year-old over a threat made against one of the Christchurch mosques targeted in the shooting.

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