WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) – When Aya Al-Umari faces her brother’s killer in the dock, she intends to tell him that his hatred stole away her best friend, her guardian, her hero. That she still wants to pick up the phone and tell her brother all about her day, because he’s the only one who would understand.
Al-Umari is one of more than 60 survivors and family members who this week in court will confront the white supremacist who committed the worst atrocity in New Zealand’s modern history, when he slaughtered 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019.
The gunman, 29-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, pleaded guilty in March to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism – the first terrorism conviction in the nation’s history.
Tarrant has dismissed his lawyers and intends to represent himself during the four-day sentencing starting today, raising fears he could try to use the occasion as a platform to promote his racist views.
He can choose to speak once the victims have spoken, although the judge will likely shut down any attempts he makes to grandstand. Tarrant could become the first person in New Zealand to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. New Zealand abolished the death penalty for murder in 1961, and the longest sentence imposed since then has been life imprisonment with a minimum 30-year non-parole period.
The attacks targetting people praying at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques shocked the nation and prompted new laws banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons. They also prompted global changes to social media protocols after the gunman livestreamed his attack on Facebook, where it was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Some victims have travelled from abroad to attend the court hearing and have completed a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed because of the coronavirus.
Virus distancing requirements mean the number of survivors in the main courtroom will be limited to 35 at any one time.
But the hearing will also be streamed to seven adjacent courtrooms, which can hold another 200 or so people.