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Christchurch terrorist visited Israel in 2016: officials

Updated March 18, 2019

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White supremacist Brenton Tarrant stayed in Israel for nine days in October 2016, officials say. Tarrant, an Australian citizen, has been charged with murder for shooting 50 people dead in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. — AFP/File
White supremacist Brenton Tarrant stayed in Israel for nine days in October 2016, officials say. Tarrant, an Australian citizen, has been charged with murder for shooting 50 people dead in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. — AFP/File

Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, who killed 50 people in a terror attack targeting two New Zealand mosques during Friday prayers last week, briefly visited Israel in 2016, Israeli officials confirmed on Monday.

Tarrant arrived on a three-month tourist visa and stayed in Israel for nine days in October 2016, immigration authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said. She was not able to provide further details on the visit by the 28-year-old.

Although the attacker grew up in Grafton, Australia, he had spent only 45 days in the country over the last three years and was not on any terror watch lists, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on Monday.

Social media posts suggested that Tarrant's travels included trips to North Korea, Croatia, Pakistan, Bulgaria, and Greece, among others.

The Australian was charged with murder over the worst modern-day massacre in New Zealand in which 50 people were killed at two Christchurch mosques.

The attack has shocked New Zealanders, who are used to seeing a total of around 50 murders a year in the country of 4.8 million people, and pride themselves on living in a secure and welcoming place.

Terrorist sacks lawyer

It emerged today that Tarrant has sacked his state-appointed lawyer and will represent himself in court.

Richard Peters, who had represented Tarrant during a hearing on Saturday, told AFP the attacker "wants to be self-represented in this case".

"The way he presented was rational and someone who was not suffering any mental disability. He seemed to understand what was going on," Peters said.

Under New Zealand law, if Tarrant pleads not guilty, his case would normally go to trial, raising the possibility that he could face survivors and victims' families in court.

Tarrant faces an "unprecedented" sentence that bars him from ever applying for release, but could yet dodge terror charges, legal experts told AFP. He has been charged with one initial count of murder. In New Zealand, being found guilty of murder usually comes with a minimum of 10 years in jail before possible parole.

But legal experts said Tarrant's alleged crimes were so extreme they could warrant the heaviest sentence imposed by a judge in the South Pacific nation since the abolition of the death penalty in 1961. "He may be sentenced to imprisonment without parole. There is a very significant possibility," criminal lawyer Simon Cullen told AFP, adding that such a sentence would be "unprecedented".

"This would seem to be... the type of situation that may well attract consideration of that type of sentence."

The longest-ever murder sentence imposed in New Zealand was in 2001 when a judge sentenced William Bell to life imprisonment with a 30-year minimum term for a triple murder.

University of Auckland criminal procedure expert Bill Hodge said despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labelling the massacre an act of terrorism -- prosecutors may shy away from terror charges.

The Terrorism Suppression Act was only introduced in 2002, after the US 9/11 attacks and is untested in the courts. “We haven't used our terrorism laws previously and the laws are designed to inhibit or prosecute those involved with groups and financing and publications and the like,” Hodge told AFP.

NZ to amend gun control laws

The country intends to amend its gun control laws in the coming days, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced at a press conference today, following a cabinet meeting.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters speak to the media during a press conference following a cabinet meeting today. ─ AFP
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters speak to the media during a press conference following a cabinet meeting today. ─ AFP

Ardern said her coalition was unified on the need to reduce the availability of the kind of weapons used by Brenton Tarrant as he went room to room shooting Muslims gathered for Friday prayers.

“We have made a decision as a cabinet, we are unified,” she said, flanked by her coalition partner and deputy prime minister, Winston Peters.

Peters, whose New Zealand First party has previously opposed changes, said he backed the prime minister fully.

“The reality is that after 1pm on Friday our world changed forever, and so will our laws,” he said.

Ardern, the youthful premier who has become the face of the nation's tragedy, said there would be an inquiry into the horrifying attack, as questions swirl over whether intelligence agencies should have spotted warning signs.

The role of social media has also come under the spotlight, after the gunman livestreamed his rampage on Facebook.

A teenager, whose name cannot be published, appeared in court on Monday and was charged with distributing that footage.

Grief continued to wash across the nation on Monday, with New Zealanders of all stripes gathering to express revulsion over the killings and unity in the face of racial hatred.

A Maori cleansing ceremony was performed at the Al Noor mosque — the scene of the largest massacre — bringing together indigenous Kiwis, Muslim leaders and local officials.

Later, dozens of students gathered there to pay their respects, laying flowers and lighting candles. Many came together for a haka — a traditional Maori ceremonial dance that has been performed by groups across New Zealand in the wake of killings.

And in Auckland, students at Orewa College gathered to form a heart and the message “Kia Kaha” — “stay strong” in Maori.

“It brings to mind our own values and why we find this so abhorrent. Ideas held by the perpetrator have no place in our community and school,” the college said.

Muslims keep faith in justice system

Mustafa Farooq, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, told reporters he had faith in the system.

“As a community, we would like that person to go through the process, the due process, and to be given all his rights,” he said.

“We believe in the justice system here and we know it will do what is right.” But, he cautioned, the attitudes that gave rise to the killing — documented in a rambling, racist screed released online minutes before the attacks began — must be tackled.

“This rise in hatred... by people who call themselves right-wing, whether smaller groups or through reckless politicians, should not be allowed to continue.

“What happened to our community here will happen to another community,” he said.

'Nothing extraordinary'

The organisers of New Zealand's largest gun show — the Kumeu Militaria Show, near Auckland — announced on Monday they had cancelled the event in the wake of the massacre and because of “elevated security risks”.

Despite having tightened the rules in the 1990s after the last mass shooting, New Zealand has relatively permissive gun laws, with nearly all of those who apply granted gun licences.

David Tipple, the managing director of Gun City, whose online store sold Tarrant four weapons, said he felt no responsibility for the killings. “We detected nothing extraordinary about this licence holder,” he told reporters.