CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The man accused of shooting dead 51 Muslim worshipers in the Christchurch mosque attacks in March pleaded not guilty to all the charges filed against him.
Brenton Tarrant smirked as his lawyer, Shane Tait, entered the not guilty pleas, but otherwise showed little emotion during the hearing at the Christchurch High Court.
The 28-year-old Australian appeared via video link from a small room at the maximum security prison in Auckland where he’s being held.
The courtroom was filled with 80 survivors and family members, while about another 60 watched the proceedings on video in an overflow room.
Four cultural advisers and other staff were assigned to help the victims and family members understand what was going on in court and the next steps in the case.
A man who addressed the survivors said they had been praying during the holy month of Ramadan and that the Muslim community would help and support each other during the coming weeks and months.
Tarrant has been charged with 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one terrorism charge in relation to the March 15 massacre.
Wearing a gray sweat shirt, Tarrant was shown being brought into the room by three prison officers. His link had been muted, and he didn’t attempt to speak.
When Judge Cameron Mander asked if he could hear and see what was going on in the courtroom, Tarrant nodded.
His smiling demeanor enraged survivors still reeling from the worst massacre in modern New Zealand history, who had packed the courthouse’s public gallery for a glimpse of the accused.
“It just shows he’s an animal,” Mustafa Boztas, who was wounded in the thigh, told AFP outside the court.
“I feel sad that someone can be so unhuman and take the lives of innocent people.”
Abdul Aziz, who confronted the gunman at the Linwood mosque and chased him off the premises, said he wanted to see the face of the accused.
“He was laughing there (in court) and he thinks he was so tough, but he was a coward when he faced me and he ran,” he said.
“He was not man enough to stand up that time and (now) he’s standing there and laughing.
“Put me for 15 minutes in one cell and then we will see if he can laugh any more.”
Mander said that two mental-health assessments of Tarrant had been completed, and there were no issues in relation to the accused’s ability to enter pleas and stand trial. Such mental-health assessments are standard procedure in murder cases.
The judge scheduled a six-week trial to begin May 4 next year. Tarrant will remain in custody ahead of his next hearing on August 15.
The trial is scheduled to last six weeks.
Didar Hossain, whose uncle and friends were killed in the attack, was disappointed it would take so long for the alleged killer to face justice.
“It should be finished in six months, that would be good for us. We are not happy,” he said.
In the March 15 attacks, 42 worshipers were killed at the Al Noor mosque and seven were killed at the Linwood mosque during Friday prayers. Two more people died later at the Christchurch Hospital.
The shooter livestreamed much of the attack on Facebook.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed never to say the accused man’s name. Last month she helped lead a global pledge named the “Christchurch Call,” aimed at boosting efforts to keep internet platforms from being used to spread hate, organize extremist groups and broadcast attacks.