Christchurch, June 14 (IANS) The man accused of carrying out the brutal shootings at two mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch city that killed 51 people, on Friday pleaded not guilty on all the 92 charges levelled against him.
This was the 29-year-old Australian national Brenton Tarrant’s third court appearance following New Zealand’s deadliest terrorist attacks on March 15.
Tarrant, faces one count of engaging in a terrorist act, 51 counts of murder and 40 of attempted murder for the mass shootings he allegedly committed at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques as Muslim worshipers were conducting their Friday prayer, reports Efe news.
According to public broadcaster Radio New Zealand, Tarrant, who witnessed the proceedings through teleconference as he remains detained in a high-security prison in Auckland, appeared to smile on the screen as one of his two attorneys entered the plea on his behalf before the Christchurch High Court.
The not guilty plea was met with some gasps among the audience, which included survivors and relatives of the victims.
Most of the massacre was live-streamed through Tarrant’s alleged social media accounts, imitating the style of first-person shooter videogames.
During the hearing, Justice Cameron Mander said the mental health assessments he had received indicated that Tarrant was fit to stand trial.
“No issue arises regarding the defendant’s fitness to plead, to instruct counsel, and to stand his trial,” Mander said in a statement. “A fitness hearing is not required.”
The judge also fixed a date for the start of the trial: May 4, 2020.
While prosecutors have expressed their belief that the trial will last about six weeks, Tarrant’s defence has said that it will likely drag on for several months.
Tarrant is set to be remanded in pre-trial custody, with a case review hearing scheduled for August 16.
A restriction on publishing unpixellated photos of the suspect was lifted last week.
The attacks, allegedly fuelled by Tarrant’s explicitly white supremacist ideology, shook New Zealand’s society to its core.
The government has since taken a series of measures, such as a gun law reform on the possession of semi-automatic rifles or social media restrictions to prevent the propagation of hate messages, as well as creating a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate all factors that may have played a part in the tragedy.