COMMENT:

It took the court registrar four minutes to read aloud the names of all 51 murder victims on the Crown charge list.

"On the 15th day of March, 2019 at Christchurch, you did murder Khalil Hussein Moustafa, Muse Nur Awale ..."

Sitting there, listening, Imam Gamal Fouda wept. His cross-town brother Imam Alabi Lateef looked to the heavens.

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The tension inside the courtroom had hollowed a cave deep in the pit of my stomach. There was a palpable sense of expectation, a dense emotion, waiting for the man in the grey sweatshirt on the TV screen beamed from prison to speak. Having covered some 50 murder trials in a 25-year reporting career, I'd never experienced anything like this.

When the 51st and final name was read out, and he was asked whether he was guilty or not guilty, there still felt like it was going to be one sick joke. But no, he finally put his hand up.

"Oh okay, yes guilty."

Brenton Tarrant appeared in the High Court in Christchurch today via audio visual link.
Brenton Tarrant appeared in the High Court in Christchurch today via audio visual link.

And with those words, Brenton Harrison Tarrant admitted to being the lone gunman. The heavily-armed shooter who stormed two city mosques on March 15 last year and slaughtered 51 Muslims and attempted to kill another 40 during Friday jum'ah prayer. A mass-murdering terrorist.

After the short, stark court appearance was over, Masjid Al Noor's Imam Fouda in the public gallery rose unsteadily to his feet. He shook his head. Now he would have to go tell his people. For, like the rest of Christchurch's Muslim community, he hadn't known that the 29-year-old Australian man was going to enter shock guilty pleas today.

READ MORE:
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Who is Brenton Tarrant: The making of a mass killer

Police had asked Imam Fouda, along with Linwood Islamic Centre brother Alabi, to witness today's court proceedings. But he had no idea what was going to play out.

It had to be kept a tight secret. For even though the defendant had told his lawyers that he wanted to change his pleas earlier in the week, and now pleaded guilty, he could still have changed his mind.

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And court staff organising the hastily-arranged special court hearing had to contend with the Covid-19 lockdown. It all felt rather surreal.

I told Imam Alabi I felt like hugging him. We'd embraced many times before – when he continually welcomed me warmly into his wee wooden masjid over the last 12 months or when we bumped into one another at various memorials or meetings. But today, on the first day of New Zealand's month-long coronavirus lockdown, with personal distancing being strictly enforced even in the most dramatic courtroom settings in recent judicial history, was not the time nor the place.

Imam Gamal Fouda of Masjid Al Noor, right, and Imam Alabi Lateef from Linwood Islamic Centre.
Imam Gamal Fouda of Masjid Al Noor, right, and Imam Alabi Lateef from Linwood Islamic Centre.

He later texted me to say how relieved he was. And that he could now look forward to "future development and harmony in our community and NZ at large".

Later in the afternoon, Fouda would say: "It is a relief for me personally and for many in our communities."

Today will have come as an almighty shock to the shooting survivors and family members of victims.

Just like the attack itself, nobody saw it coming.

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But when it all sinks in, and they grasp the enormity of things, they should feel a tremendous sense of relief. It's over, it's finally all over. Well, nearly.

A six-week, painful, harrowing, disturbing jury trial, where the killer's livestream footage would have been played, survivors would have had to retell their harrowing eyewitness accounts, forensic pathologists dispassionately outlining entry and exit wounds, that's gone now. They're at least spared that torment.

The gunman's defence team of Shane Tait (left) and Jonathan Hudson were approached by their client earlier this week, indicating that he now wanted to plead guilty.
The gunman's defence team of Shane Tait (left) and Jonathan Hudson were approached by their client earlier this week, indicating that he now wanted to plead guilty.

"I am relieved we will not have to endure a long and stressful trial," Fouda says. "Many of the victims were dreading reliving their trauma by having to retell their stories in court and possibly be questioned on them."

He will be sentenced later this year though. A date hasn't been set yet, but Justice Cameron Mander who accepted today's proceedings without the families was "regrettable", stressed that it'll only happen after the coronavirus restrictions ease off. Then, when he is given his final sentence, the families can be there and witness it all for themselves – if they wish to.

Many will want to stay away. Some will want to be there and look him in the eye. Others will bravely read carefully worded victim impact statements, telling the court, and the killer himself, exactly how the most heinous of all New Zealand crimes has affected them and their loved ones.

Once that is done, and he is led back into custody for the final time, the heavy doors to the cells will close shut behind him. And with them, one of the darkest chapters in New Zealand history. Only then, will Christchurch Muslims finally be able to go back to quietly, peacefully living their lives in the Garden City.

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