The man who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 looked his surviving victims and their families in the eye on Monday as they recounted the horror of a massacre which prosecutors said he carefully planned to cause maximum carnage.
Australian national Brenton Tarrant, 29, has pleaded guilty to 51 murders, 40 attempted murders and one charge of committing a terrorist act during the shooting rampage in the city of Christchurch which he livestreamed on Facebook.
He faces life in prison possibly without parole in what would be a first for New Zealand, when a High Court judge sentences him later this week for carrying out the deadliest shooting in the country’s history.
Handcuffed and dressed in grey prison clothes, Tarrant sat with hands clasped for most of the first morning of his sentencing hearings. He showed little emotion, and looked directly at those delivering victim impact statements.
The mother of Ata Elayyan, who was slain in the shootings, told the hearing that losing her son was like feeling the pain of labour all over again.
Maysoon Salama, speaking just metres away from Tarrant, said she constantly wondered what her son was thinking in his last moments “armed only with his courage” after he was gunned down at the Al Noor mosque on March 15 last year.
“I can’t forgive you ... you gave yourself the authority to take the souls of 51 people. Our only crime in your eyes is that we are Muslims,” she said.
“You killed your own humanity and I don’t think the world will forgive you for your horrible crime. May you get the severest punishment for your evil act in this life, and hereafter.”
Elayyan, a 33-year-old goalkeeper for the New Zealand men’s futsal team, was near the back of the mosque while his father, near the front, survived the attack despite being shot in the head and shoulder.
Gamal Fouda, imam of Al Noor mosque, told Tarrant that he was “misguided and misled”.
“I can say to the family of the terrorist that they have lost a son and we have lost many from our community too,” Fouda said.
“I respect them because they are suffering as we are.”
The attacks prompted a global outpouring of grief as well as scrutiny, with regulations imposed on online platforms after the then 28-year-old live-streamed the mosque shootings shortly after uploading a manifesto.
Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes said Tarrant told police after his arrest that he wanted to create fear among the Muslim population.
He also expressed regret for not taking more lives and revealed that he intended to burn the mosques down after the shootings, Hawes said.
“He intended to instil fear into those he described as invaders, including the Muslim population or more generally non-European immigrants,” Hawes said.
Tarrant fired “two precisely aimed shots” at three-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim who was clinging to his father’s leg, Hawes said. Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the shootings.
The shooter spent years purchasing high-powered firearms, researched mosque layouts by flying a drone over his primary target, and timed his attacks to maximise casualties, the prosecutor said.
While most of Tarrant’s victims were at Al Noor mosque, he attacked a second mosque before being detained en route to a third.
Security is tight outside the court, with police dogs pacing the streets and snipers on rooftops, television footage showed.
With social distancing measures in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, a small public gallery is at the main court, with survivors and families of victims viewing the proceedings in seven overflow court rooms.
Live reporting from the courtroom is banned, and other restrictions have been put in place on what the media can report.
High Court judge Cameron Mander said that he had received more than 200 victim impact statements and had read them all.
He said he would not sentence Tarrant before Thursday so that survivors and family members of victims had an opportunity to address the court.
A murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The judge can impose a life term without parole, a sentence that has never been used in New Zealand.
Reporting by Praveen Menon.