He could become the first person in New Zealand to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the harshest sentence ever.
Tarrant was brought to Christchurch High Court in chains and dressed in gray prison attire. On the dock, cleared and surrounded by five officers, he showed little emotion throughout the hearing. He sometimes looked around the room, tapped his fingers, and observed the survivors as they spoke.
Two dozen victims, family members testify
The courtroom was only half full due to the distance requirements of the coronavirus, while many more watched from adjacent courtrooms where the hearing was broadcast. Survivors and family members sometimes cried and comforted each other.
Two dozen victims and their families spoke to the court about the pain of losing husbands, wives, sons and brothers. Some had family members around to support them, while others spoke through translators or on pre-recorded videos from abroad.
One of them was grandmother Saira Patel, who spoke about Melbourne, Australia and described when she thought she was going to die in Linwood Mosque.
“I reached out with both arms to my husband so that we died together,” she said.
Her 36-year-old husband, Musa, was shot in the back. When paramedics arrived, she said, they told her to push on the bullet hole to ease the bleeding, but her hands continued to slip with all the blood. When they took over, she said, she held her husband’s warm hands until they fell. He was dead.
Some speakers raised their voices in anger when addressing the shooter. It has been said that nothing less than the death penalty would be fair. Janna Ezat, whose son Hussein Al-Umari was killed, looked at Tarrant and spoke quietly.
“I forgive you,” she said. “The damage is done, Hussein will never be there. I have only one choice and that is to forgive. “
First detailed account of the shootings
Monday’s hearing began with prosecutors describing the attacks in a 26-page factual summary, the first detailed account by authorities of what happened that day, including the revelation that Tarrant had the intention to burn down mosques.
Crown Attorney Barnaby Hawes said Tarrant moved to New Zealand in 2017 and started purchasing an arsenal of high powered weapons, as well as 7,000 rounds of ammunition.
Two months before the attacks, Tarrant flew a drone directly over the Al Noor Mosque, recording an aerial view of the land and buildings and taking note of entry and exit gates, Hawes said.
Hawes said the shooter planned his attacks when the maximum number of worshipers was present and 190 people were in Al Noor Mosque for Friday prayers on the day of the attacks.
In his car, the shooter had six firearms – two AR-15 rifles, two other rifles and two shotguns, the court heard. He also brought with him four modified gas containers that he planned to use to burn down mosques after he finished filming, Hawes said.
The gunman later told police he wished he had used them and that he wished he had shot more people.
Hawes said Tarrant told police after his arrest that he wanted to instill fear among the Muslim population.
“He intended to instill fear in those he described as invaders, including the Muslim population or more generally non-European immigrants,” Hawes said.
The victims fought back
The prosecutor also detailed the bravery of Naeem Rashid, who was killed at the Al Noor mosque.
“He ran towards the accused from the southeast corner of the room. When Mr. Rashid was about three feet from the accused, the accused rotated the AR-15 and fired four shots at close range, ”Hawes said.
“Mr. Rashid crashed into the accused and he knelt down,” Hawes said, adding that Tarrant was able to get up and shoot Rashid again.
At the Second Mosque, a worshiper, Abdul Aziz, chased Tarrant down the aisle, shouting at him, prosecutors said, and threw an abandoned gun at his car, smashing a window. Aziz was not injured.
Tarrant has fired his lawyers and represents himself in sentencing, raising concerns that he may try to use the opportunity as a platform to promote his racist views. He can choose to speak after the survivors have spoken, though the judge will likely end all attempts at the forum.
Live reporting from the courtroom is prohibited and other restrictions have been put in place on what the media can report.
Changes to social media rules
New Zealand abolished the death penalty for murder in 1961, and the longest sentence since then has been life imprisonment with a minimum period of 30 years without parole. Judge Cameron Mander will decide the shooter’s sentence at the end of the hearing.
Mander said he received more than 200 victim impact statements and read them all. He said he would not convict Tarrant until Thursday, so that survivors and family members of the victims have the opportunity to apply to court.
Attacks on people praying at Al Noor and Linwood mosques shocked New Zealand and prompted new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons. They also sparked global changes in social media protocols after the gunman live streamed her attack to Facebook, where it was seen by hundreds of thousands.
Prosecutors said after Tarrant left Linwood Mosque he planned to drive into the town of Ashburton and attack a third mosque. But he was hit by two policemen, dragged out of his car and arrested.
Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor mosque, who survived the shooting, told the court that the shooter’s actions were misguided.
“We are a peaceful and loving community that did not deserve your actions,” Fouda said. “Your hatred is useless. If you have done anything, you have brought the world community together with your evil deeds. “