SYDNEY – The man accused of perpetrating a terror attack against two mosques in New Zealand that killed 51 people pleaded not guilty on Friday to all 92 charges against him.
The suspect, 29-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, faces one count of engaging in a terrorist act, 51 counts of murder and 40 of attempted murder for the mass shootings that he is accused of committing at the Christchurch mosques on March 15 as Muslim worshipers were conducting their Friday prayers.
Tarrant appeared at the proceedings via video link from a high-security wing of Auckland Prison wearing a gray sweatshirt and flanked by prison officers.
He smiled as one of his two attorneys entered the plea on his behalf before the Christchurch High Court, according to public broadcaster Radio New Zealand.
The plea was reportedly met with gasps among the court’s public gallery, which included survivors and many relatives of the victims as well as Victim Support and Muslim community leaders.
During the hearing, Justice Cameron Mander said the mental health assessments he had received indicated that Tarrant was fit to stand trial.
“No issue arises regarding the defendant’s fitness to plead, to instruct counsel, and to stand his trial,” Mander said in a statement. “A fitness hearing is not required.”
A trial start date was fixed for May 4, 2020. While prosecutors have expressed their belief that the trial will last about six weeks, Tarrant’s defense has said that it will likely drag on for several months.
Tarrant is set to be remanded in pre-trial custody, with a case review hearing scheduled for Aug. 16.
A restriction on publishing unpixelated photos of the suspect was lifted last week.
This was Tarrant’s third court appearance since his arrest on the day of the attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques.
This is the first time a person has been charged under the country’s Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, brought into force after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The massacre, allegedly fueled by the accused’s explicitly white-supremacist ideology, shook New Zealand’s society to its core.
It spurred the government to take immediate and ongoing action in an effort to prevent any further attacks, including gun-law reform, working with world leaders and global tech companies against online hate, and launching a top-level inquiry into the event.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after the shooting that the gunman had legally acquired five firearms, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns, which appeared to have been modified.
Tarrant had obtained a firearms license in Nov. 2017 after passing all legal requirements.
On April 10, just over three weeks after the attack, New Zealand’s parliament overwhelmingly passed a gun reform bill by 119 votes to one. The legislation banned all military-style semi-automatic weapons, all parts that allow weapons to be modified, and all high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The massacre was live-streamed for 17 minutes on social media, imitating the style of first-person-shooter videogames. The footage was then shared and viewed around the world, sparking heavy criticism that global tech companies were not doing enough to stop the spread of hate on the internet.
In May, Ardern co-chaired a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris between world leaders and heads of global tech companies who pledged, under what is now known as the Christchurch Call, to tackle extremist and terrorist content online.
Also in May, the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry, normally reserved for the gravest matters of public importance.
“The inquiry will look at what could have or should have been done to prevent the attack. It will inquire into the individual and his activities before the terrorist attack, including a look at agencies,” Ardern said.
The Commission, which will be headed by New Zealand Supreme Court Justice William Young, will be required to hand over its findings on Dec. 10 to Governor General Patsy Reddy.