The Australian man accused of carrying out the worst mass shooting in modern New Zealand history has appeared in court, where he was formally charged with 50 counts of murder and 39 attempted murder counts.
On Friday morning local time, Brenton Tarrant, 28, appeared via video link in Christchurch High Court in front of Justice Cameron Mander. Families in the court cried quietly as Tarrant appeared on screen, handcuffed with his hands in front of him. Tarrant appeared relaxed, looking around the room at times.
Tarrant did not address the court. He was not required to enter a plea, and was told to reappear on June 14, after a court-ordered mental health assessment. It’s standard for defendants to be evaluated by two health experts to determine their fitness for trial.
The space was filled with relatives of those killed in the attack. Some inside the court appeared to be injured victims, still in hospital gowns in wheelchairs.
Tarrant was arrested within 21 minutes of the first emergency calls being received by police following attacks on Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques on Friday, March 15. He was charged at the time with one count of murder and remanded in custody without a plea.
During his first appearance in court on March 16, the courtroom was closed to the public, the name of the victim was withheld by authorities and a judge ruled that pictures of the suspect in court must have his face blurred.
Despite the extra security measures, the suspect, who arrived in handcuffs, was pictured making what appeared to be a hand gesture associated with the white supremacist movement. Tarrant quickly dismissed his first lawyer, but has retained counsel.
Tarrant’s court appearance comes as the New Zealand government moves to rapidly approve legislation banning semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, in an effort to ensure similar attacks can never happen again.
On Tuesday, a bill which proposes banning semi-automatic firearms, magazines and parts used to assemble illegal firearms passed its first reading in Parliament, gaining the support of every lawmaker in the house, bar one.
If the bill passes, gun owners will have an amnesty until September to hand in their weapons and be compensated as part of a proposed buyback scheme.
The attack began at just after 1:30 p.m. at the al Noor mosque in central Christchurch. It was a Friday, the busiest day for many mosques around the world. Much of that initial shooting was streamed live on social media, including a period where the shooter returned to his car to re-arm.
The attack lasted approximately six minutes. Dozens of people were left dead and wounded in the mosque as the shooter proceeded to his second target, the Linwood Islamic Center, where he killed another seven people.
He was eventually stopped by police on his way to what they said was a likely third target, and taken into custody.
A number of weapons were recovered at both locations. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said improvised explosive devices were also found at the scene.
In total, 50 people were killed in the attack, the majority at al Noor mosque. Several victims died in ambulances en route to receiving treatment, while another died later in Christchurch Hospital. Dozens more people were injured, many of them seriously.
Ardern described the massacre as one of the country’s “darkest days.”
Following the attack, New Zealanders came together to offer support and solidarity to the victims and the wider Muslim community. Thousands attended a memorial service in Christchurch a week after the attack, which was also broadcast nationwide.
From a wheelchair onstage at the memorial, survivor Farid Ahmed, whose wife died in the attack, spoke of forgiveness. “People ask me, ‘Why did you forgive someone who has killed your beloved wife?’” he said.
“I don’t want a heart that is boiling like a volcano, a volcano has anger, fury, rage, it does not have peace,” he said. “I want a heart that will be full of love and care and full of mercy.”
Pressure on big tech
Much of the fallout stemming from the attacks has centered on the role of social media.
The suspect’s so-called “manifesto,” which was disseminated online ahead of the shooting, was filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas. It directed users to a Facebook page that hosted the live stream of the attack. The video quickly spread rapidly on YouTube, Twitter and other platforms.
In the wake of the attack, Facebook announced that it had removed 1.5 million copies of the video of the attack in the first 24 hours alone.
Ardern, who has been resolute in her conviction that the attacks should not be used to give publicity to views of the suspect, has insisted that more needs to be done to stamp out hate speech online.
“He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them,” Ardern said following the attacks.
She has urged all social media companies to take responsibility for how their platforms were used in the lead-up to the mosque attack and in the aftermath.
Facebook has joined in attempts to crack down in the aftermath of the attack, announcing in late March it would be banning all “praise, support and representation” of white nationalism from its platform.
On Thursday, the Australian government passed strict new laws which aim to stop the spread of violent content online, threatening fines and jail time if videos are not removed quickly.
“It was clear from our discussions last week with social media companies, particularly Facebook, that there was no recognition of the need for them to act urgently to protect their own users … so the (government) has taken action with this legislation,” Attorney General Christian Porter said in a statement.