A day after he gunned down 49 people who were attending Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, the main suspect Brenton Harrison Tarrant was charged with one count of murder Saturday. 48 people were injured in the terrorist attack that was carried out during Friday prayers at Al Noor Masjid and a smaller mosque in Linwood.
Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian citizen, appeared in a Christchurch District Court Saturday. Handcuffed and wearing a white prison suit, Tarrant did not speak. His court-appointed lawyer made no application for bail or name suppression. He also apparently smirked at photographers, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Tarrant was remanded without a plea until his next scheduled appearance in the South Island city’s High Court on April 5. He was likely to face further charges, police said.
Labelling the attack as an act of terrorism, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed to reform the country’s gun laws. The attack was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand and the country raised its security threat level to the highest.
Tarrant has been identified as a suspected white supremacist, based on his social media activity. Footage of the attack on one of the mosques was broadcast live on Facebook, and a “manifesto” denouncing immigrants as “invaders” was also posted online via links to related social media accounts.
In the 74-page manifesto he left behind, Tarrant talks about an “invasion” from India, along with China and Turkey, and defines the three countries as “potential nation enemies in the East”. The manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement”, also stated that “the invaders must be removed from European soil, regardless from where they came or when they came. Roma, African, Indian, Turkish, Semitic or other. If they are not of our people, but live in our lands, they must be removed.”
The video footage showed a man driving to the mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people present inside. Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay on the floor, the video showed. Police said the alleged shooter was arrested in a car, which was carrying improvised explosive devices, 36 minutes after they were first called. It was still unclear whether any other shooters were involved in the attacks.
Two other people were in custody and police said they were working to understand their involvement. Armed police were deployed at several locations in all cities, unusual in a country that has had low levels of gun violence.
Ardern said the main suspect was a licensed gun owner who used five weapons during his rampage, including two semi-automatic weapons and two shotguns. Authorities were working to find out how he had obtained the weapons and a license, and how he was able to enter the country to carry out the attack, she said.
“I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change,” Ardern said adding that a ban on semi-automatic weapons would be considered.
None of those arrested had a criminal history or was on any watchlist in New Zealand or Australia. There was a heavy police presence at the hospital where families of the wounded had gathered. Eleven people remained in intensive care, hospital authorities said. Funerals were planned on Saturday for some of the victims, several of whom were born overseas.
A host of world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, expressed sorrow and disgust at the attacks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi Friday wrote to his New Zealand counterpart expressing his deepest condolences to the bereaved families of the victims. Stressing that India strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, PM Modi said, “Hatred and violence have no place in diverse and democratic societies.”
US President Donald Trump, who condemned the attack as a “horrible massacre”, was praised by the accused gunman in a manifesto posted online as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
(With inputs from Reuters)