Terror in Chch

The broken-hearted are broken again

The shock of a not-guilty plea is absorbed stoically by the victims and victims’ families of the Christchurch terrorist attack

The broken-hearted gathered in the broken city and were broken again. Not that they showed it.

In court room 12, on the third floor of Christchurch’s justice precinct, lawyer Shane Tait confirmed today that his client, Brenton Tarrant, the alleged mosque shooter, would plead not guilty. Not guilty of 51 murders, 40 counts of attempted murder, and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act.

The signs were there last week. On Thursday of last week, Justice Cameron Mander sent out a minute saying the alleged shooter, an Australian who had been living in Dunedin until the March 15 attack, was expected to plead. That was a sign that mental health assessments had found him fit to plead, instruct counsel, and stand trial. And so it was.

The victims and their families – one man on a crutch and another in a wheelchair, dressed mainly in the dark hues of winter clothes – took the news stoically. There were no audible gasp, no screams of anguish. But the hard stares of people who, you would think, knew this day was coming.

Beyond their physical and mental suffering, they now have the pain of having to endure a trial. That trial will likely start on May 4 next year, Mander says, and take six weeks, if the Crown lawyer, Mark Zarifeh is to be believed, or much longer, if Tait’s assessment is right. The public should know more after September 20, when the Crown is expected to file its formal case, including witness statements. (The accused’s next appearance is August 15.)

When Mander summed up today few of the public gallery watched him. Instead their stares were fixed on the screens, on which the image of the sometimes-grinning terrorist accused beamed from prison in Auckland. 

This incredible group of people have already shown their bravery. Like Abdul Aziz, who attended today’s hearing, who confronted the gunman at the Linwood Islamic Centre with a credit card machine, and even picked up an abandoned gun. Or Husna Ahmed who died at the Al Noor Mosque, trying to shield her wheelchair-bound husband, Farid Ahmed. Or Ahmed himself for forgiving the gunman, and saying so at a national memorial service.

Their reserves of strength seem to know no bounds. 

Gone is the warmth of March. Not just the temperature, as the cold of autumn and winter strips leaves from deciduous trees, but also the warmth of crowds gathered in parks after the attacks listening to the call to prayer and pleas for unity, the grass verges awash with flowers.

Gone are those edifying scenes from the weeks following the days and weeks after March 15. Today’s scene played out in a monolithic edifice, the Christchurch justice precinct, with cameras and journalists swarming at the entrance, the clag of low cloud and rain closing in.

The justice building is a phoenix of the 2011 earthquake. At a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, it opened six years after the quake that killed 185 people in the South Island’s biggest city. 

It’s only a stone’s throw from the national earthquake memorial, on the south bank of the slow-moving Avon River. The memorial is a long, curved stone wall designed by a Slovenian architect, with the names of the victims inscribed on panels – a representation of a city’s previous, but quite recent, suffering. The trauma of that terrible day was shared across the world as many of those who died in the collapsed CTV building, which housed a language school and medical centre, were born overseas. 

Similarly, the victims of the terrorist attack – who were praying as the shots fired – were originally from far beyond; places like Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Many fled danger in search of safety, only to have that shattered in March.

Christchurch’s justice building is cleverly designed. Panels of bronze aluminium, stone and timber fixed at angles to let light flood into the public spaces of the heavily glazed building. 

It’s also a place of shadow, where the worst of humanity is displayed. Not just criminal mistakes, but, allegedly, clinical mass-murder. 

Far below the courtroom, an underground aquifer flows. In summer the water is cooler than air, in winter it is warmer than air. Right now, water is extracted and pumped, through heat exchangers, around the justice precinct, allowing the buildings to gain heat from the water.

The heat of public gatherings, messages of togetherness, and spontaeous haka and hugs, have no doubt warmed the victims of this callous attack. But in court 12, surrounded by the greys and browns of the court room, and a not guilty plea, it’s hard to feel.

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