By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – An Australian man accused of killing 51 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand’s worst mass shootings changed his pleading guilty in a surprising move on Thursday.
Brenton Tarrant, who appeared on the video link, admitted 51 murder charges, 40 attempted murder charges, and 1 terrorist act charge in a hastily called Christchurch High Court hearing.
“He was convicted of each of these charges,” presiding judge Cameron Mander said in the minutes of the court hearing.
“The filing of guilt is a very important step in making this criminal case final.”
Tarrant has been in police custody since March 15, 2019, when he was arrested and accused of using semi-automatic weapons to target Muslims who attend Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch. The attack was broadcast live on Facebook.
Tarrant’s admission of guilt makes a six-week trial, which should begin in June, superfluous. The court will instead go straight to sentencing Tarrant for all 92 charges. There was no date for this conviction, and Tarrant was remanded until May 1.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has undertaken not to publicly name the shooter, said that she “breathed deeply” when she heard of the confession of guilt.
“The entire nation, particularly the Muslim community, was spared a process that could have served as a platform,” said Ardern.
Aarif Rasheed, a lawyer who works with several victim families, said they had received no evidence of why Tarrant had changed his non-guilty pleas.
“All possible explanations are speculative, but we know that terrorists often seek a sense of self-importance and concern for their cause,” Rasheed said. “The COVID-19 pandemic removed that.”
Tarrant, facing life imprisonment, had published a “manifesto” on social media prior to the attack, which immigrants referred to as “invaders”, and referred to “white genocide”, a term used by white supremacists to describe the growth of minorities.
Tarrant’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Due to a nationwide ban on the outbreak of the corona virus, the trial took place in the courtroom on Thursday with only 17 people, including an imam for each of the two attacked mosques.
35-year-old Sheikh Hasan Rubel, who survived the attack despite being shot three times, said the admission of guilt brought both surprise and relief.
“Whenever I thought about the trial, it affected me mentally and I didn’t want to experience it all over again,” he told Reuters on the phone.
“Now I’m pretty relieved. We had confidence in the New Zealand legal system and I was sure that he would get everything he deserves.”
Farid Ahmed, whose wife was killed in the Al Noor mosque, said the admission of guilt was bold and correct.
“His heart recognized what was right and he admitted his guilt,” said Farid.
“That would save him from more emotional and mental trauma and the rest of the country’s time and effort,” he added. “For the Muslim community, it would save them from going through the trial and refreshing memories of this tragedy.”
The court imposed a one-hour embargo on the news report to inform family members and victims of what had happened before the release.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast.)