Brenton Tarrant, the Australian national charged with murdering 49 people in twin mosque shootings in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on March 15, appeared today (March 16) in a heavily guarded courtroom to hear the first of what are expected to be multiple murder charges.
According to video news coverage of the brief court procedure, Tarrant showed no emotion as the judge read out a single charge of murder.
He was reprimanded without plea until his next hearing at New Zealand’s High Court on April 5, and did not request bail. The presiding judge added it was “reasonable to assume” more murder charges would follow.
The judge also ordered his face to be pixelated to preserve his fair trial rights, in accordance with New Zealand law. Two other male suspects apprehended during Friday’s carnage have not yet been publicly identified.
Only media members were allowed into the courtroom for security reasons. Reports said the gunman suspect smirked when media personnel took his photograph and at one point made an upside down “okay” gesture, a symbol used by white supremacists worldwide.
The New Zealand Herald reported that there were calls by some from a crowd gathered outside the courtroom to lynch Tarrant before the hearing.
Just as he was about to be brought into court, one person wielding a knife attempted to enter the courtroom, with the man reportedly telling the newspaper that he wanted to stab the suspect.
The mosque shootings represent the deadliest terror attack in New Zealand’s history.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in the aftermath of the killings: “It is clear that this can only be described as a terrorist attack. Clearly, what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.”
Ardern said the victims came from across the Muslim world, with Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia among the countries that provided consular assistance to victims. One Saudi citizen and two Jordanians were among the dead, while five Pakistani citizens were missing, news reports said.
Ardern later added the national security threat level in the country had been raised to its second-highest level, despite the fact that none of those apprehended were on a terror watch-list before the attack.
The prime minister also proposed an overhaul of local gun laws banning semi-automatic rifles in the wake of the mass shootings. The gunman suspect reportedly held a “category A” firearms license since 2007 and did not have a prior criminal record, according to reports.
Two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns and lever-action gun were used in the attacks.
Tarrant, who livestreamed the shootings from a Go-Pro camera afixed to a helmet, has since been identified as aner who hailed from Grafton, a small town in New South Wales, Australia. He had been living in Dunedin, New Zealand, for several years, reports said.
In a 74-page vitriolic manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement,” Tarrant wrote about his hatred of immigrants, particularly Muslims, who he referred to as “invaders.” He wrote that he had become consumed with a desire to kill them and that he sought to inspire others to do the same.
The manifesto was posted to Twitter, Facebook and the hate-laden 8chan social media site. Commentators have referred to the raging rant, now ricocheting across social media and the Internet, as a de facto press release for racism and the latest example of a rising trend of extremists weaponizing the Internet.
Tarrant asserted in the manifesto that he was not a Nazi, but he had nonetheless written on a rifle that’s seen in his livestreamed video the number 14 — a reference to a white supremacist slogan conceived by US neo-Nazi David Lane, a convicted felon and member of the terror group The Order.
The manifesto championed hate crime killers such as Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist sentenced to death for slaughtering nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
He also lauded Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist who in 2011 killed eight people by detonating a van bomb before shooting dead 69 others at a summer camp in the country.
At one point in the livestream footage of the attack carried over Facebook the gunman can be heard saying: “Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie”, reference to Youtube’s most watched blogger, who has come under fire for making racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments and Nazi references in his video broadcasts. The popular blogger condemned the killing and expressed sympathy for the victims.
The attack has prompted hard new questions about whether rightwing extremism has been treated with enough seriousness by Western governments.
Ali Soufan, a former high-ranking US FBI counterterrorism agent who has written books on terrorism, was quoted in reports saying that the threat of rightwing extremism needs to be treated with the same seriousness as jihadist violence.
“We are in the midst of a surge of rightwing terrorism that has been metastasizing in plain sight while generating only a muted response from domestic counterterrorism authorities,” he said.
While New Zealand counts the cost of the worst terror attack in its history, there were plenty indications of the nation’s better angels, seen in notes of grief and disbelief posted at a memorial near Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque, the site of most of the killings.
“I am so sorry that you were not safe here. Our hearts are breaking for your loss,” read one of the notes at the mosque marked with a string of x-kisses, according to one local news report.
Social media was awash with photos of people laying flowers with sympathetic notes at police guarded mosques across many Western countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
One bouquet left at the Baitul Ahmad mosque in London widely circulated on Twitter came with a note saying: “Hate will never win.”