Christchurch, March 26 (IANS) The man accused of the 2019 Christchurch mosque attack on Thursday pleaded guilty to all the 92 charges he was facing, becoming New Zealands first convicted terrorist.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 29, appeared via video-link in the Christchurch High Court on the first day of the national lockdown in New Zealand against the coronavirus pandemic.
"The guilty pleas to 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act were taken via an AVL (audiovisual) link from Auckland Prison," Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.
Tarrant had previously denied all charges and was due to stand trial in June.
The hearing was held after the defendant indicated via his lawyers on Tuesday that he wished to appear before the court.
"Police appreciate this news will come as a surprise to the victims and the public, some of whom may have wished to be present in the courtroom," Bush said.
Two imans from Al Noor and Linwood mosques, where the shootings took place on March 15, 2019, were present in the Christchurch court as representatives of the victims.
After the guilty pleas were entered, a short suppression order was put in place to allow victims to be notified.
Tarrant was remanded in custody until May 1. Sentencing will not take place until all victims who wish to attend can do so.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand is currently in full lockdown. Only essential attendees were in at the Christchurch court.
"Today's guilty pleas are a significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days," Bush said.
"I want to acknowledge the victims, their families and the community of Christchurch – the many lives that were changed forever. They have inspired all of us to be a kind and more tolerant community."
The massacre began when Tarrant, a white supremacist, livestreamed himself on social media heading to Al Noor mosque with firearms.
There he opened fire as he went inside, killing and wounding dozens of worshipers observing Friday prayers.
He then drove to Linwood mosque where he continued his attack and was arrested afterwards when his car was rammed off the road by police. He was thought to be on his way to another location to continue his shooting spree.
It was the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history, and Tarrant was the first to be charged under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act.
Within a week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had passed strict gun reform laws, and a couple of months later launched the Christchurch Call with French President Emmanuel Macron to eliminate violent and extremist content online.
In a statement after Thursday's hearing, Ardern said: "The guilty plea today will provide some relief to the many people whose lives were shattered by what happened on March 15.
"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."