The white supremacist accused of killing 51 people and livestreaming the carnage on Facebook has pleaded not guilty in a Christchurch, New Zealand court today. The courtroom was filled with friends and family of the victims who reacted with gasps as the plea was entered, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Brenton Tarrant faces 92 charges, including 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder, and one count of terrorism under New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act of 2002.
Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian national, appeared in the Christchurch court via video link from Paremoremo Prison in Auckland. The New Zealand Herald reports that a mental health assessment was ordered for Tarrant and he’s been assessed as fit to stand trial. Tarrant reportedly smiled as the charges were read out.
“He was laughing and he thinks he is so tough, but he is a coward,” Abdul Aziz, who charged the gunman during the attacks, told the Brisbane Times.
Three of the murder victims were children, including Mucad Ibrahim, who was just three years old. At least one family member of the victims has called for Tarrant to get the death penalty, despite the fact that New Zealand formally abolished capital punishment in 1989. No one has been executed in New Zealand since 1957.
Tarrant allegedly targeted two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 with the intent of spreading fear in the Muslim community worldwide. The bloody massacre received global coverage not just because so many people were killed, but because it was livestreamed on Facebook for 17 minutes before the social media company took down the video link. Copies of the terrorist attack circulated widely on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the following days, leading some politicians like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to call for more accountability from the largest technology companies.
“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” Ardern said in the days following the attack. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
Ardern has led the charge for social media companies to better police the content that’s on their platforms. Prime Minster Ardern helped formulate the so-called Christchurch Call, a non-binding resolution imploring social media companies to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” And while over a dozen countries and five major tech firms have supported the Christchurch Call, the U.S. government has been an outlier.
President Donald Trump, who’s normally not shy about saying whatever’s on his mind (even when it’s explicitly illegal), has not supported the Christchurch Call, arguing disingenuously that the best way to fight “bad” speech online is more speech. But President Trump only seems to support that position when the terrorist is white. Tarrant wrote in his online manifesto that President Trump was, “a symbol of renewed white identity.”
New Zealand was quick to pass new gun laws in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, banning assault rifles and all so-called military-style firearms. New Zealanders have voluntarily brought in about 600 guns to police stations around the country since the attacks on March 15, even before the implementation of the buyback program.
After the buyback scheme is formally implemented gun owners will have a 6-month period to hand over any illegal guns. A reported 3,665 gun owners in the country have already notified police departments that they’ll surrender their weapons once the buyback program allows them to be paid for their weapons. The New Zealand government estimates that it will cost anywhere from $65 million to $130 million to buy back the guns that will now be considered illegal.
“Australia experienced a massacre and changed its laws. New Zealand has had its experience and changed its laws. To be honest with you, I don’t understand the United States,” Prime Minister Ardern told CNN last month.
The trial date for Tarrant has been set for May 4, 2020, almost a year from now.