Terror in Chch

March 15 terrorist pleads guilty

The terrorist who attacked two mosques on March 15, 2019 and killed 51 people has pleaded guilty to charges of terrorism, murder and attempted murder

March 15 gunman Brenton Tarrant has pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one of engaging in a terrorist act.

The terrorist had previously pleaded not guilty to all charges and was scheduled to stand trial in June. However, a surprise court appearance for him on Thursday morning was booked late Wednesday, as the country prepared to enter a four-week lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The change of plea has drawn a mixed reaction from victims.

Farid Ahmed, whose wife Husna was killed at Masjid An-Nur, also known as the Al Noor mosque, says he’s been praying for the March 15 terrorist.

“I am very happy that he could see what he had done wrong. I’ll continue my prayer for him to be a better person, to be a loving person, and to be able to dedicate his life, whatever way possible, to save life, not to destroy life.”

Farid Ahmed, a senior leader at Al-Noor mosque, has written a book, Husna's Story. Photo: David Williams

Ahmed, who’s wheelchair-bound after being hit by a drink driver in 1998, made headlines around the world for saying he forgave the gunman soon after the attack, saying he didn’t hate him, he loved him.

Today, Ahmed says he pays respect to the gunman, who killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques in March last year, for showing the courage to own up to what he has done.

“We as a country are going through a lot. In Christchurch we went through the earthquake, we went through last year’s 15 March tragedy, now the whole country is going through a lockdown, facing coronavirus.

“We are dealing with a lot and, in this time, his change in his heart, I think, is good for everyone. We can move on, we can focus on doing good things for one another, supporting one another.”

The death toll at Linwood Islamic Centre would have been higher had it not been for Abdul Aziz. Photo: David Williams

For Abdul Aziz, who chased the killer from the Linwood mosque, heroically throwing an eftpos machine at him, things are a bit more complicated. He accepts the decision and admits many people will be relieved the trial isn’t going ahead.

But he fears it will leave key questions unanswered. “For me I would have liked to go to trial to find out more – why he did it, who was behind it, what benefit he got out of it,” Aziz says. “I wanted to be in the court and know everything exactly.”

Masjid An-Nur Imam Gamal Fouda, who was at today’s hearing, says in a press statement the guilty pleas were completely unexpected and a bit of a shock.

“We continue to stand with the families who lost their loved ones and hope today brings them some relief too. I am relieved we will not have to endure a long and stressful trial – many of the victims were dreading reliving their trauma by having to re-tell their stories in court and possibly be questioned on them.”

Imam Gamal Fouda says it is now up to the justice system to decide the gunman's punishment. Photo: Supplied

One of the lawyers for the families, Aarif Rasheed, says there is no indication of what sparked the guilty pleas.

It’s important the victims’ pain is not forgotten, he says. “They are still having to find their own way to recover and survive. The pandemic makes this an even lonelier and even more painful process.”

Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations, says the guilty plea is a great relief, which will save families from having to relive the whole event again during a trial.

“Our thinking was that the individual would try to get as much mileage as he can through the trial by getting the opportunity, whatever he can, to espouse his own ideology. The fact that he accepted his guilt and decided to keep it all under wraps, is really a welcome relief.”

He adds: “Now it will allow our country to focus on overcoming Covid-19.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement: “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.”

Hearing scheduled at short notice

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the appearance was scheduled "at short notice after the defendant indicated, via his counsel on Tuesday afternoon, that he wished to be brought before the court".

Tarrant appeared via video-link from Auckland's Paremoremo Prison to change his pleas.

In a minute released this morning, Justice Cameron Mander says there were only 17 people present for today’s hearing – including the imams of the Linwood and Al-Noor mosques, and six journalists. “It is regrettable that the Covid-19 restrictions that presently apply prevented victims and their families from being able to travel and be present when the defendant entered his pleas of guilty.”

He adds: “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 a realistic possibility.”

The judge embargoed the result of the hearing for an hour, so the victims and their families could be notified.

The shooter was remanded until May 1, when it is hoped a sentencing date will be confirmed.

Worst mass shooting in NZ's history

On March 15, the terrorist drove to Masjid Al-Noor in Christchurch and opened fire during Friday prayers. In the course of the attack, 42 people were murdered there and two others died of their wounds in hospital. The man then drove to Linwood Mosque and resumed shooting, murdering another seven people.

The attack was live-streamed for 17 minutes on Facebook, which then froze the stream and took it down. More than 1.5 million copies of the video were uploaded to Facebook in the subsequent 24 hours and 1.2 million of these uploads were blocked.

Tarrant was motivated by white supremacy and a belief in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which posits that Western civilisation and the white race will be destroyed by non-white migrants who have higher birth rates than Europeans.

The attack was the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history and led to an immediate change in gun laws, including the banning of military-style semi-automatic weapons and a massive gun buyback which took in 56,250 prohibited firearms. A second tranche of gun reforms, including the creation of a national firearm registry, is stalled in Parliament.

"While the sentencing hearing is still pending, today’s guilty pleas are a significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days," Bush said.

"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."

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