The terrorist who murdered 51 Muslim people in New Zealand faces a life in prison, possibly without parole, after his sentencing hearing began on Monday morning in Christchurch, the city where the attacks took place.
Brenton Tarrant has pleaded guilty to 51 murder charges, 40 charges of attempted murder, and one charge of committing a terrorist act. These attacks took place last year on March 15, 2019. The 28-year-old Australian livestreamed the mosque shootings shortly after uploading a manifesto, which included white supremacist views.
This was by far the most violent massacre to have occured in all of New Zealand’s history, as the country has low crime rates and little history of terrorist activity.
Brenton Tarrant faced the surviving victims and relatives of those killed in a courtroom on Monday. This is their first encounter with Tarrant since the shootings. The judge is expected to hear about 66 victim impact statements over the course of the multi-day proceedings. Tarrant, who is representing himself, will be allowed to speak before sentencing.
Prosecutor Barnaby Hawes said Tarrant had studied the mosques’ layouts and exit routes to maximize casualties, and had contacted his family about his planned deeds shortly before he began his assault.
Tarrant sat impassively as details of his crimes were read out. He glanced occasionally around the courtroom, but showed little reaction as survivors relived the horror.
“The gunman and I looked into each other’s eyes. . . . I was shot nine times,” said Temel Atacocugu, looking at Tarrant as he recounted the carnage at the Al Noor Mosque.
“I laid under bodies in the mosque, thinking I was going to die,” he said. “I tried to lie as still as possible when the gunman came back a second time. I could feel the blood and brains of the person above me running down my face and neck. I couldn’t move or make a sound, as the gunman would have executed me.”
Gamal Fouda, the mosque’s imam, who was delivering a sermon on the day of the attacks, said he had “lived with the nightmare” of what he witnessed, explaining how he had tried to be strong for his community despite his trauma. “We are a peaceful and loving community who did not deserve your actions,” he told Tarrant. “If you have done anything, you have brought the world community closer with your evil actions.”
Tarrant carried six weapons with him for the assault, including rifles and semiautomatic shotguns. The youngest victim of Tarrant’s rampage was just three years old.
According to the Washington Post, Tarrant described his actions as terrorist attacks motivated by his ideological beliefs. Hawes said Tarrant told investigators that he wished he had killed more people, and that he intended to use incendiary devices found in his car to burn down the mosques following the massacre.
Janna Ezat, whose son Hussein Al-Umari was one of 51 people killed in the Christchurch shooting, came face-to-face with Brenton Tarrant, she said, “I have decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant, because I don’t have hate, I don’t have revenge,” she said during victim statements. “The damage is done. Hussein will never be here. I have only one choice: to forgive you.”
However, Maysoon Salama, Ata’s mother, asked Tarrant to look up her son’s name, so he would “know the huge loss you caused.”
“I can’t forgive you,” she told the gunman.
As Mohammad Alayan lay on the floor of the Al Noor Mosque bleeding profusely from two gunshot wounds, he prayed his son had been late to prayers. Tragically, after being rushed to hospital, he discovered Ata Elayyan was among the 44 dead at the Christchurch mosque on March 15 last year.
“My heart breaks millions of times… like feeling the pain of labour again and again. Losing my son is like feeling the tight pain of labour again and again,” Maysoon Salama said.
Before the hearing, Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah, who fought off Tarrant at the Linwood Islamic Center, said he wanted to see Tarrant attempt to explain “why his life is more important than the lives of those kids.”
“He came and killed all the innocent women and children with a gun, but when his turn came [for a beating], he ran away like a coward,” Wahabzadah said.
MORE VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENTS FROM THE SENTENCING OF THE CHRISTCHURCH MOSQUE TERRORIST
Quotes courtesy of the Australian Associated Press.
“You killed in my name. I am white, Muslim and proud.” – Nathan Smith
“I saw my husband leaning against the wall. I knew that we were going to die within seconds … I put my arms around my husband so we could die together. It was extremely painful to feel so helpless while watching your soulmate breathe his last breath.” — Saira Bibi Patel, wife of Muse Vali Suleman Patel, killed at Linwood Islamic Centre
“The last time I drove (may car) was to the mosque on the 15th of March. I am too scared to drive … because of this I have lost my independence.” — Muhubo Ali Jama, wife of Muse Awale, who died at Al Noor mosque
“The day started beautifully. There is no match for Ata’s wonderful smile. We have lost such wonderful characters…but not forever as we hope to meet them again in paradise and live in peace.” — Mohammad Atta Ahmad Alayan, father of Ata Mohammad Ata Elayyan, murdered at Al Noor mosque
“His name means a gift from Allah and he was the best gift to us for 33 years. Losing my son is like feeling the tight pain of labour again and again…Ata is gone but never forgotten.” — Maysoon Salama, mother of Ata Mohammad Ata Elayyan
“My behaviour has changed … I have felt disappointment for not being able to help more people. I’m depressed. I’m frustrated that someone has taken away my happiness. I am frustrated that I have lost my friends.” — Khaled Majed Abd’el Rauf Alnobani, who was at Al Noor mosque during the shooting
“A lot needs to be done in our country Aotearoa to stamp out extremism … there is no place for this.” — Ziyaad Shah, who was shot three times at Al Noor mosque
“The trauma will live with me forever. The images, smell and sound haunt me … but in the future I will think about and be proud of all I have overcome as I walk freely in the sunshine.” — Temel Atacocugu, who was shot nine times at Al Noor mosque
“I am faced with raising my children on my own. My daughter keeps asking where her father is…Not only did you kill 51 people, you also killed 51 families emotionally.” — Amna Ali, wife of Syed Jahandad Ali, who was killed at Al Noor mosque
“I had the rare gift of being Hussein’s mother for 35 years. He didn’t have an enemy in the world until he was killed…I weep every day for him and for our family’s loss.” — Janna Ezat, mother of Hussein Al-Umari, killed at Al Noor
“My best friend was executed in cold-blooded murder…Now that you have killed him I have turned to God and that has made my faith in Islam even stronger.” — Aya Al Umari, sister of Hussein Al-Umari
“Any small trigger can make me cry. Just a simple thing. ‘How are you doing?’ can make me cry.” — Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed, who was at Linwood Islamic Centre during the attack.
My heart breaks as I read these statements and write this piece. May Allah grant jannah to the lives of the victims that have been lost and ease the pain of their families. Surely, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom’s weight.
Maliya Naz is a Kashmiri/Pakistani American poet and human rights advocate. When she is not volunteering or translating Urdu ghazals, you can find her giving talks about all things Islam and spirituality.