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New Zealand PM vows to deny accused mosque gunman notoriety

Updated March 19, 2019

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Parliament session in Wellington on March 19, 2019. — AFP
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Parliament session in Wellington on March 19, 2019. — AFP

New Zealand's prime minister declared on Tuesday she would do everything in her power to deny the accused mosque gunman a platform for elevating his white supremacist views after the man dismissed his lawyer and opted to represent himself at his trial in the killings of 50 people.

“I agree that it is absolutely something that we need to acknowledge and do what we can to prevent the notoriety that this individual seeks,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters.

Dressed in black, the 38-year-old leader opened her remarks in parliament with a symbolic gesture, repeating the greeting uttered every day across the Islamic world: “as-salaam alaikum”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Arden addressing the New Zealand Parliament. — Video courtesy: The Guardian.

“He will face the full force of the law in New Zealand,” Ardern pledged to grieving Kiwis.

“He sought many things from his act of terror. And one was notriety.”

“That is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

“I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them.”

“He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.”

She demurred about whether she wanted the trial to occur behind closed doors, saying that was not her decision to make.

She closed her address by noting that “on Friday, it will be a week since the attack, members of the Muslim community will gather for worship on that day. Let us acknowledge their grief as they do.”

“Wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,” she said — “May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you too.”

Funerals delayed

Her comments came as dozens of relatives of the deceased began arriving from around the world ahead of expected funerals which have already been delayed far beyond the 24 hours after death usually observed under Islamic custom.

Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible. Ardern has said authorities hope to release all the bodies by Wednesday.

Peter Elms of New Zealand's immigration department said 65 visas had been granted for overseas family members so far.

The slow process of identification and forensic documentation has so far made burials impossible, augmenting families' grief.

Javed Dadabhai, who travelled from Auckland to help bury his cousin, said families and volunteers were told: “It is going to be a very slow process, a very thorough process.”

“Some families have been invited to have a look at their family members...the ones that are easiest to recognise, but we are talking about three or four.”

“The majority of people still have not had the opportunity to see their family members,” he told AFP.

Mohamed Safi, 23, whose father Matiullah Safi died in Al Noor mosque, pleaded for officials to let him identify his father and get a date for his burial.

“There's nothing they are offering,” Safi, an Afghan refugee, said outside a family support centre.

“They are just saying they are doing their procedures, they are doing their process. But what process? Why do I not know what you are going through to identify the body... Why am I not contacted as an immediate family member?”

Police said they have completed autopsies on all 50 bodies and have formally identified 12 of them. Six of the identified victims have been returned to their families, according to AP.

Semblance of normalcy

Meanwhile, Christchurch was beginning to return to a semblance of normalcy on Tuesday. Streets near the hospital that had been closed for four days reopened to traffic as relatives and friends of the victims continued to stream in from around the world.

Thirty people were still being treated at the Christchurch hospital, nine of them in critical condition, said David Meates, CEO of the Canterbury District Health Board.

A 4-year-old girl was transferred to a hospital in Auckland and is in critical condition. Her father is at the same hospital in stable condition.

Sheik Taj El-Din Hilaly, of Sydney, traveled to Sydney to attend and lead some of the funerals. Through a translator, he said he felt compelled to travel to Christchurch to support the grieving.

A nationwide lockdown on mosques was imposed until Monday, which Hilaly said had upset Muslims whom he had visited in Auckland. Police continue to guard mosques across the country.

Spread of video

The shooter's desire for attention was made clear in a manifesto sent to Ardern's office and others before Friday's massacre and by his livestreamed footage of his attack on the Al Noor mosque.

The video prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation. Facebook said it removed 1.5 million versions of the video during the first 24 hours, but Ardern expressed frustration that the footage remained online, four days later.

“We have been in contact with Facebook; they have given us updates on their efforts to have it removed, but as I say, it's our view that it cannot should not be distributed, available, able to be viewed,” she said.

“It is horrendous and while they've given us those assurances, ultimately the responsibility does sit with them.” Arden said she had received “some communication” from Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on the issue.

The prime minister has also spoken with British Prime Minister Theresa May about the importance of a global effort to clamp down on the distribution of such material.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also urged world leaders to crack down on social media companies that broadcast terrorist attacks. Morrison said he had written to G-20 chairman Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for agreement on “clear consequences” for companies whose platforms are used to facilitate and normalise horrific acts.

Self-representation

Lawyer Richard Peters, who was assigned to represent Brenton Harrison Tarrant at his initial court appearance on Saturday, told the New Zealand Herald that Tarrant dismissed him that day.

A judge ordered Tarrant to return to New Zealand's High Court on April 5 for his next hearing on one count of murder, though he is expected to face additional charges. The 28-year-old Australian is being held in isolation in a Christchurch jail.

“He seemed quite clear and lucid, whereas this may seem like very irrational behavior,” Peters told the newspaper. “He didn't appear to me to be facing any challenges or mental impairment, other than holding fairly extreme views.” Peters did not return a call from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Peters told the paper that Tarrant didn't tell him why he wanted to represent himself. He said a judge could order a lawyer to assist Tarrant at a trial, but that Tarrant would likely be unsuccessful in trying to use it as a platform to put forward any extremist views.

Under New Zealand law, a trial is “to determine innocence or guilt,” Peters said. “The court is not going to be very sympathetic to him if he wants to use the trial to express his own views.”

Gun control

Ardern has said that details of the government's proposed law changes on gun ownership will be announced by next week, but she indicated that gun buybacks and a ban on some semi-automatic rifles were under consideration.

“The terror attack in Christchurch... was the worst act of terrorism on our shores, it was, in fact, one of the worst globally in recent times,” she said.

“It has exposed a range of weaknesses in New Zealand's gun laws.”

She also had announced an inquiry into the intelligence and security services' failures to detect the risk from the attacker or his plans. There have been concerns intelligence agencies were overly focused on the Muslim community in detecting and preventing security risks.

New Zealand's international spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, confirmed it had not received any relevant information or intelligence ahead of the shootings.

In Parliament on Tuesday, Ardern said there are justified questions and anger about how the attack could have happened in a place that prides itself on being open, peaceful and diverse.

“There are many questions that need to be answered and the assurance that I give you is that they will be,” she said. “We will examine what we did know, could have known or should have known. We cannot allow this to happen again.”

New Zealanders have already begun answering government appeals to hand in their weapons, including John Hart, a farmer in the North Island district of Masterton.

Hart said it was an easy decision for him to hand in his semi-automatic and tweeted: “on the farm, they are a useful tool in some circumstances, but my convenience doesn't outweigh the risk of misuse. We don't need these in our country.”

The tweet drew a barrage of derogatory messages to his Facebook account — most apparently from the US, where the pro-gun lobby is powerful and vociferous.

Hart deleted the messages but posted online: “A warm kia ora to all my new American Facebook friends.” “I'm not familiar with your local customs, but I assume 'Cuck' is a traditional greeting,” he said of the insult, short for “cuckold” frequently used by far-right pundits.

Police said they did not have data available on the number of weapons handed in since Friday.

But they issued a statement saying that “due to heightened security and the current environment, we would ask that people please call us first before attempting to surrender a firearm.”