NZ mosque shooter pleads guilty in unexpected move

Aussie admits to 92 charges, including 51 of murder; survivors, victims' families relieved

Brenton Tarrant in court after his arrest on March 15 last year following his fatal shooting spree at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.
Brenton Tarrant in court after his arrest on March 15 last year following his fatal shooting spree at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WELLINGTON • An Australian man accused of killing 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand's worst mass shooting changed his plea to guilty in a surprise move yesterday.

Brenton Tarrant, who appeared by video link, admitted to 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge of committing a terrorist act in a hastily called Christchurch High Court hearing.

"He has been convicted of each and every one of those charges," presiding judge Justice Cameron Mander said in minutes of the hearing released by the court. "The entry of guilty pleas represents a very significant step towards bringing finality to this criminal proceeding."

Tarrant has been in police custody since March 15 last year, when he was arrested and accused of using semi-automatic weapons to target Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch. The attack was streamed live on Facebook.

His guilty plea makes a six-week trial that was due to begin in June redundant. The court will instead move directly to sentencing Tarrant on all 92 charges. It did not provide a date for that sentencing and Tarrant was remanded in custody until May 1.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has stuck by a pledge to not name the gunman in public, said she let out "a massive sigh of relief" when she heard of the guilty pleas. "The whole nation, but particularly the Muslim community, has been spared a trial that could have acted as a platform," Ms Ardern said.

Mr Aarif Rasheed, a lawyer working with some victim families, said they were not given any indication of why Tarrant changed his pleas from not guilty.

"Any possible explanations are speculative but we do know terrorists are often seeking a sense of self-importance and attention to their cause," Mr Rasheed said, adding: "The Covid-19 pandemic has removed that."

Tarrant, who faces a lifetime prison sentence, had posted a "manifesto" on social media ahead of the attack that called immigrants "invaders" and referred to "white genocide", a term used by white supremacists to describe the growth of minority populations.

Due to a nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak, yesterday's hearing took place with just 17 people in the courtroom, including an imam for each of the two mosques attacked.

Survivor Sheikh Hasan Rubel, 35, who was shot three times, said the guilty pleas brought surprise and relief. "Whenever I thought about the court proceedings it used to affect me mentally, and I did not want to re-live all of it," he said. Now I feel quite relieved."

Mr Farid Ahmed, whose wife was killed in the attack, said the guilty plea was the courageous and right thing to do.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2020, with the headline 'NZ mosque shooter pleads guilty in unexpected move'. Subscribe