Mosque terror accused pleads not guilty

The 28-year-old Australian national entered not guilty pleas during a short appearance via audio...
The 28-year-old Australian national entered not guilty pleas during a short appearance via audio visual link at the High Court at Christchurch this morning. Photo: NZME
Brenton Tarrant has today denied murdering more than 50 people during the Christchurch mosque attacks and will stand trial in May next year

The 28-year-old Australian national, who lived in Dunedin prior to the attacks, entered not guilty pleas during a short appearance at the High Court at Christchurch this morning.

He gave a slight smile when not guilty pleas were entered through his lawyer.

Wearing a grey sweatshirt and straining to hear discussions, he was not in the courtroom but instead appeared via audio visual link from Paremoremo Prison in Auckland.

He constantly looked around during the hearing. Several cameras would have shown to him the courtroom, judge and lawyers but not the public gallery.

He also appeared to be flexing or stretching his neck at times.

The courtroom was filled with victims – survivors and family members of the 51 killed during the March 15 attack at two Christchurch mosques – with many more watching from two overflow rooms inside the courthouse via audio visual link.

They reacted with gasps when the not guilty pleas were entered.

All of the victims kept their eyes glued to the alleged gunman throughout the hearing. Many were visibly upset. One woman hugged a cuddly toy.

Abdul Aziz, who chased away gunman Brenton Tarrant with an Eftpos machine at Linwood mosque on...
Abdul Aziz, who chased away gunman Brenton Tarrant with an Eftpos machine at Linwood mosque on March 15, speaks to journalists outside the Christchurch High Court. Photo: Reuters
A trial date of May 4 was confirmed by Justice Cameron Mander. The Crown believes the trial could last around six weeks. Defence counsel Shane Tait believes it could take up to three months.

The accused was remanded in custody to a case review hearing on August 16 at 9.15am.

Christchurch Crown Solicitor Mark Zarifeh formally laid another murder charge, two additional attempted murder charges, and a charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.

The accused gunman now faces a total of 51 murder charges and 40 attempted murder charges - along with the terrorism charge.

Justice Mander said the court had received two health assessors' reports that were ordered at the last court hearing under section 38 of the Mental Health Act to determine whether the defendant was mentally fit or impaired and whether he is mentally able to enter pleas to the charges.

The judge confirmed today: "No issues arise regarding the defendant's fitness to plead, to instruct council and to stand trial. Therefore a fitness hearing is not required."

Justice Mander said that a proposed trial date starting at the end of February 2020 was initially considered possible.

However, Tait expressed concern that, because of the likely timing of the disclosure of the Crown's case, a trial in early 2020 would provide an insufficient period to complete pre-trial applications and prepare for trial.

And while the court "endeavours to bring serious criminal cases to trial within a year of arrest", Justice Mander said the" scale and complexity of this case makes this challenging".

"In the interests of providing certainty and to avoid the possibility of an overly optimistic trial date having to be vacated and the trial adjourned, it has been set down to commence on May 4, 2020," he said.

"Despite the magnitude of this case, the setting down of a trial within a 14-month timeframe from Mr Tarrant's arrest accords with the ordinary timetabling of a trial of far less complexity and scale."

Janna Ezat, wearing a T-shirt in memorial of her son who was killed at Al Noor mosque on March 15, reacts outside the Christchurch High Court after the accused gunman pleaded not guilty to all charges. Photo: Reuters
Janna Ezat, wearing a T-shirt in memorial of her son who was killed at Al Noor mosque on March 15, reacts outside the Christchurch High Court after the accused gunman pleaded not guilty to all charges. Photo: Reuters
While the Crown thinks the trial may take around six weeks – and Tait believes it could be as long as three months – Justice Mander said: "If the trial is to take longer than six weeks it will be accommodated."

Suppression lifted today on the names of the attempted murder victims, the judge confirmed. The Crown confirmed that, after inquiries, they did not seek a continuation of the suppression order.

However, three victims under the age of 18 have statutory suppression.

Suppression also lifted on the name of the 51st person to die from the attacks – Turkish national Zekeriah Tuyan who died at Christchurch Hospital.

Several family members and survivors of the mosque shooting came to court this morning. There is reserved seating for 80 in the public gallery, while others elsewhere in the courthouse are dialling in via audio visual link-up.

Before the hearing, Abdul Aziz, widely hailed as a hero for confronting the alleged gunman and chasing him away from Linwood Islamic Centre where seven people were killed, wanted to see the accused in court.

"We are getting there slowly. But it will take time. Days like today bring it all back."

After today's proceedings, he said "it was very hard", but vowed to attend every court hearing and the trial next May.

Linwood Mosque Imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah went to court today to see the man accused of killing seven of his congregation.

It was important that he was there today, he said, but it has left him "feeling nothing".

His community was still emotional, hurting and raw.

"No one is in a good situation, nobody feels good. It has not got any easier. The healing process will take a very long time," he told the Herald.

He is confident in the New Zealand justice system, but doesn't think he will come back to court.

"I just wanted to be here today."

Once again there was a large domestic and international media presence for the alleged gunman's third appearance.

TV cameras and photographers were lined up outside the Christchurch Justice Precinct which houses the High Court.

Media were ushered inside by security and moved to a briefing room before 22 journalists were taken into the courtroom where the hearing started at 9.15am.

There was an overflow of journalists who watched proceedings via audio visual link from another room inside the courthouse.

By Kurt Bayer

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