A New Zealand court is expected to start on Monday sentencing an Australian who murdered 51 Muslims while praying in the city of Christchurch last year.
Brenton Tarrant, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, pleaded guilty in March to 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one charge of committing an act of terrorism. The plea came a year after Tarrant attacked people attending Friday prayers in two mosques with semi-automatic rifles, broadcasting the shooting live on Facebook.
During the four-day sentencing hearing at Christchurch High Court, Judge Cameron Mander will hear statements from 66 survivors of the attack.
The court was cordoned off Monday morning with sniffer dogs checking the queues for court staff and the media lining up outside in the drizzle.
Tarrant, who is likely to be in the courtroom and represents himself, got off a New Zealand Air Force plane at Christchurch airport on Sunday afternoon. Television footage showed him wearing a protective vest and helmet as armed officers escorted him into the back of a white van.
He will be sentenced after being allowed to make a statement.
With the injuries still raw from the attack – New Zealand’s worst mass shooting in recent history – Mander said the conviction was a milestone for the victims.
“The finality and the closure are seen by some as the best way to bring relief to the Muslim community,” the judge said in preparation for the hearing.
Many of the people who will be doing victim impact statements have traveled overseas for sentencing, undergoing two weeks of quarantine in order to participate.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, hundreds more will be required to observe physical distancing as they watch the proceedings via live streams to seven courtrooms in Christchurch. Others were allowed to follow the hearings online, all part of a massive logistics exercise that includes live translation of proceedings into eight languages to accommodate the diversity of the Muslim community.
Victim support workers will also be present, with local mental health specialists on standby.
‘People need to be heard’
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it would be a difficult week for many.
“I don’t think I can say anything that can lessen the trauma of this period,” she told reporters on Friday.
“The whole process will probably take time, it’s as it should be, people need to be heard.
Tarrant faces life imprisonment, with a parole release of 17 years. But the judge has the power to decide whether to jail him without the possibility of release, which means Tarrant would be jailed for the rest of his life. Such a sentence has never been imposed in New Zealand.
Authorities intend to prevent Tarrant, who sacked his lawyers last month, from using the hearing to cause further harm. He has tried sending coded messages before, flashing an “OK” hand gesture used to signal white power when he first appeared in court.
Mander has placed extraordinary restrictions on the media to ensure that even if the 29-year-old gushes neo-Nazi propaganda from the dock, he does not gain publicity. Providing live updates – a common practice for media covering court cases – has been banned.
Instead, Mander will inform the media after each court session about what can and cannot be reported, with any violations that could result in a contempt of court charge.
“The court has a duty, especially in the context of offenses against the Suppression of Terrorism Act, to ensure that it is not used as a platform… (and) to prevent it from being used as a vehicle for other harms, ”he said.
Tarrant broke into Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch on March 15 last year, shooting worshipers, including women and children, before attacking another nearby mosque. He was arrested on the way to a third attack.
A manifesto posted by Tarrant shortly before leading the attacks, and video recordings of the shootings in the mosque were banned by the New Zealand censorship commission.
The attack led to a gun ban in New Zealand and Ardern led a campaign against hateful content online, a response that was hailed as a model for other countries.