Suspected New Zealand mosque gunman pleads not guilty

Australian-born Brenton Tarrant denies guilt in killing of worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in March.

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    Officials said Tarrant was fit to stand trial following an assessment of his mental state [File: Reuters]
    Officials said Tarrant was fit to stand trial following an assessment of his mental state [File: Reuters]

    Christchurch, New Zealand - The man accused of killing 51 people during a shooting spree in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has pleaded not guilty to all charges levelled against him.

    A lawyer for Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, 28, said on Friday his client pleaded not guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 attempted murders and one charge of committing a terrorist act. This is the first time a terrorism charge has been brought in New Zealand.

    Tarrant was not in court in person in Christchurch; instead he appeared via a video link from a maximum-security prison where he's being held in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.

    Throughout the half-hour hearing on Friday, Tarrant - wearing a plain grey top - stood looking slightly up at a camera positioned above him.  He did not say a word during the hearing.  He nodded once to acknowledge he could hear the judge, and at times smirked. 

    When his lawyer entered the 'not guilty' pleas on his behalf, he grinned and - at one point - winked at the camera.

    Fit for trial

    Tarrant, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, is suspected of acting alone during the March 15 atrocity - New Zealand's worst peacetime mass shooting. 

    He is accused of using modified semi-automatic weapons to massacre Muslims at Christchurch's Al Noor and Linwood mosques during Friday prayers. The attack was live-streamed from a head-mounted camera.

    New Zealand's government tightened the country's gun laws in the wake of the attack and has said it would review laws dealing with hate speech.

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    It has also supported international efforts to ensure that social media giants to do more to combat online "extremism".

    More than 100 family members of victims - and a few people who were shot but survived the attacks - were in court.  Most, throughout the hearing, looked intently at the screens showing Tarrant.

    At the last hearing on April 5, the court had ordered Tarrant to undergo a mental assessment first to determine whether he was fit to stand trial.

    The judge, Justice Cameron Mander, said the accused's mental state had been assessed and he was fit to stand trial. 

    "The court endeavours to bring serious criminal cases to trial within a year of arrest. The scale and complexity of this case makes this challenging," Mander said.

    Because of the volume of evidence the prosecution and defence will have to consider, that trial will not take place until May 4.  It is expected to last at least six weeks and possibly as long as three months.

    Tarrant has been remanded in custody until August 16 when a case review hearing is scheduled.

    Mander barred news outlets from taking photographs or video of Tarrant's appearance, although he said images from an earlier hearing in March could be used.

    'He will pay'

    On the steps of the court after the hearing, people injured in the attacks, and relatives of those killed gave their reactions to what they'd seen and heard. 

    Temel Atacocugu was shot nine times and attended court on crutches.  On Friday he said: "He [Tarrant] is going to be the loser. We will win. He will pay for what he's done."

    Janna Ezat whose 35-year-old son Hussein Al-Umari was killed in the attacks said she wanted to see the death penalty for Brenton Tarrant, if he is found guilty.

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    "This is the only way. In this specific case he has to be killed. [If] he killed [more than] fifty people. He has to be killed."

    New Zealand abolished the death penalty in 1989 and has not executed anyone since 1957. If found guilty, Tarrant faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

    The people killed in March's attacks came from more than a dozen countries and their relatives speak a variety of different languages. The court had translators on hand for many and, both before and after the hearing, community representatives explained what would happen, and had happened in court. Even so, some were confused at why the trial won't take place until next year. 

    "It was totally not explained," said Didar Hossain "Why can't the case be finalised within six months? That would be good for us."

    Hossain described himself as heartbroken. "I lost my uncle" he said, "and all my friends"

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News