New Zealand mosque shooter pleads guilty in surprise move

One year after killing 51 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques, an Australian white supremacist accused of the slaughter on Thursday changed his plea to guilty.

Twenty-nine-year-old Brenton Tarrant pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism. The killing spree was the deadliest in New Zealand’s modern history and prompted the government to rush through new laws banning most semi-automatic weapons.

The sudden turn in the case took survivors and relatives by surprise, and brought relief to people across New Zealand. Many had feared he would try to use his trial as a platform to promote his views; outlined in a 74-page manifesto he published online shortly before the attacks.

Tarrant is the first person to be found guilty of terrorism in New Zealand under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.

The change in plea came less than two weeks after New Zealanders commemorated those who died during the attacks on March 15, 2019.

«Honestly, I’m still trying to process what just happened,» said Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hussein was killed in the attack on the Al Noor mosque. «I feel conflicted.»

She said that on the one hand, she had wanted to find out more details about what happened at the trial but on the other hand was feeling relieved about not having to face the trauma of sitting through it.

Temel Atacocugu, who survived being shot nine times during the attack at Al Noor, said he was surprised by the turn of events and hoped the judge would set an example at the sentencing by imposing the harshest punishment in the country’s history and helping ensure nothing like it would happen again.

«I’m happy that he has accepted that he is guilty,» Atacocugu said.

Judge Cameron Mander has not yet set a sentencing date. Tarrant faces life imprisonment, with the judge having some discretion in deciding the minimum number of years Tarrant must serve before becoming eligible for parole.

The plea came at a hastily arranged court hearing at a time that New Zealand was beginning a four-week lockdown to try and combat the new coronavirus. The lockdown meant that Tarrant appeared in the court from his jail cell via video link and that only a few people were allowed inside the courtroom.