CHRISTCHURCH: An Australian far-right extremist charged with murdering 51 Muslim worshippers in last year’s mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques unexpectedly flipped his plea to guilty on Thursday.
Brenton Tarrant, 29, had previously denied 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one of engaging in a terrorist act but changed his plea after a hurriedly arranged court hearing.
“Yes, guilty,” Tarrant told Christchurch High Court via video link from Auckland Prison.
Tarrant, wearing a grey top, stared intently at the camera while making his plea.
Neither the former gym instructor from the Australian country town of Grafton nor his lawyers offered any explanation for the change, which makes him New Zealand’s first-ever convicted terrorist.
No reason was given for the change, which means Tarrant will no longer need to stand trial over the shooting.
PM expresses relief
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Muslim community expressed relief at the surprise decision, which removes the need for a lengthy trial that authorities feared would be used to spout neo-Nazi propaganda.
“These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial,” she said.
Asked how she reacted upon hearing the news, Ardern replied: “I let out a huge sigh of relief”.
New Zealand’s small and tight-knit Muslim community welcomed the fact that they would not have to endure a drawn-out trial raking over painful details of the worst mass shooting in the country’s modern history.
“I have been praying for him and he has taken the right direction,” Farid Ahmed, whose wife Husna was killed, told TVNZ.
“I am pleased he is feeling guilty. It is a good start.”
Tarrant armed himself with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and attacked the Al Noor mosque first, before moving on to the Linwood prayer centre, livestreaming the killings as he went.
His victims were all Muslim and included children, women and the elderly.
In a rambling manifesto posted online before the killing spree, Tarrant said he had moved to New Zealand with the specific aim of conducting an atrocity against Muslims.
The document said he became radicalised while travelling around Europe, although intelligence agencies have so far failed to find any evidence he was working with right-wing extremist groups.
His actions prompted Ardern, who has vowed never to say the killer’s name, to tighten New Zealand’s gun laws and launch a campaign to curb online extremism.