The gunman who murdered 51 people in an attack on two Christchurch mosques will spend the rest of his life in prison. David Williams reports

It’s what many of the victims asked for. The Christchurch terrorist will never walk among peace-loving people again.

Justice Cameron Mander sentenced the 29-year-old Australian to life imprisonment, without parole, the first time such a sentence has been imposed.

He called the March 15 attack, which killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques, and injured 40 more, wicked, brutal and beyond callous. His terrorist massacre was undertaken with pitiless cruelty – “you showed no mercy”.

“Your actions were inhuman.”

As with the previous days of the hearing, Justice Mander’s almost two-hour sentencing was dominated with the heartbreaking stories of the victim’s families, the wounded, and the mentally traumatised.

Many victims sat respectfully in the court’s public gallery, some carrying white flowers. Others watched a video feed from overflow courts around Christchurch’s justice complex, and around the world.

After the terrorist left the court, the judge expressed his gratitude to the people of the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, and the wider Muslim community, for sharing with the court, and the wider New Zealand public, the experiences of their ordeal.

“I wish them peace and happiness.”

On the murder charges, Justice Mander gave the terrorist no credit for a guilty plea. He noted that plea wasn’t entered for more than a year, and twice he’d applied to have the trial held elsewhere and challenged the admissibility of evidence.

The guilty plea came in the face of overwhelming evidence, including decorating his weapons with ideological names and symbols, a livestream intended to show and identify him as the offender, and a full confession to police. He also distributed his manifesto to various organisations in New Zealand and overseas, including an extremist website

“Your extremist views and motivation were plain,” Justice Mander said.

On each charge of murder, Brenton Harrison Tarrant was sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served without parole. Concurrently, he would serve life in prison for committing a terrorist act and 12 years on each charge of attempted murder.

The terrorist didn’t oppose the sentence of life without parole. That’s what Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh had pushed for.

He said the terrorist meticulously planned his calculated and militaristic attack with the aim of executing as many people as possible, and spreading fear. The terrorist was motivated by an entrenched racist and xenophobic ideology. He caused “permanent and immeasurable suffering and harm”.

“The offender is clearly New Zealand’s worst murderer,” Zarifeh said.

“This must be one of the clearest cases New Zealand has had or ever will have, that life without parole is warranted.”

The attack had caused immense loss of life, permanent life-altering physical injuries and mental trauma – something powerfully demonstrated in the more than 220 victim impact statements, many of which had been read to the court over the last few days.

The harm, to survivors, the victims’ families, the Muslim community of Christchurch and the rest of New Zealand, which stands in solidarity with the victims, is irreparable, Zarifeh said.

It was notable many victims echoed the real fear of similar terror attacks in the future which, in Zarifeh’s submission, emphasised the need for deterrence in this case, and protection of the public.

“The terrorist’s actions are a painful and harrowing mark in New Zealand history.”

The significance of the locations of the massacre, two places of worship, can’t be overlooked, Zarifeh said. “Many of those who were shot were on their knees at prayer, with their backs to the offender.”

He shot numerous people from behind, who were unable to escape – “including what can only be described as the execution of a three-year-old child.” At Al Noor Mosque (Masjid An-Nur), he shot into the corners of the main prayer room, where people were huddled and on top of each other. At Linwood Islamic Centre, the executions were mostly carried out at close range.

He carried full magazines, and often changed weapons, returning to areas of Al Noor so he could systematically kill them, at close range.

“The sadism and depravity exhibited by the offender cannot be overstated.”

Tarrant was impassive throughout, and was led away quietly after the sentencing.

Before Justice Mander delivered the judgment, he asked the terrorist if he wished to address the court. He responded, calmly and clearly: “No, thank you.”

Asked if he understood he had the right to do so, he nodded, adding: “Yes.”

Tarrant didn’t ask for any more time to discuss his position with standby counsel, Pip Hall QC.

Despite admitting he’s not able to control his impulse to offend, the terrorist was dismissive of rehabilitation, saying health professionals didn’t have the training or expertise to deal with his issues, and was better to psychoanalyse himself.

Mental health professionals found the terrorist’s change of heart questionable and suggested he remained at high risk of reoffending – even in prison.

Justice Mander said: “I consider you to be a highly dangerous criminal who demonstrably has no regard for human life and who represents a very high risk of harm to others.”

The judge’s observation was the terrorist remained entirely self-absorbed, with no apology or public acknowledgement of the harm he has caused, and no remorse for the victims. While he has forsaken using a trial as a platform for his views, he seemed neither contrite nor ashamed.

“Your focus appears to be on yourself and the position you find yourself in.”

Tarrant told the pre-sentence report writer his beliefs were “not real”, and he was, at the time, in a “poisoned emotional state” and “terribly unhappy”. He felt ostracised by society and wanted to damage society as an “act of revenge”.

But his attempt to rationalise his actions, including that he descended into depression, fell flat with the judge. Justice Mander said they were at odds with the account he willingly gave, after being apprehended, to police and health assessors.

Writing his manifesto, for example, required concentration for long periods “and is inconsistent with someone suffering from a major depressive episode”.

Justice Mander also took issue with claims he was seeking a violent end. “It is striking that you were at pains to avoid being shot at the time of your apprehension and that you were determined to survive. Your plan was to be captured alive and to use your subsequent interactions with the police and the court process to advance your ideological cause.”

The terrorist claimed he was not racist or xenophobic, and didn’t target his victims because of their ethnicity or religion. “The facts show otherwise,” said Justice Mander. “You have held longstanding discriminatory views against ethnic minorities that clearly evolved from your own experience, research and interaction with like-minded individuals over a relatively long period, and developed to become violently focused on a hatred towards Muslim people.”

Justice Mander acknowledged the unprecedented public outpouring of love and support after the attack. While the terrorist meant to divide, the public demonstrated their “unqualified repudiation of your hateful agenda”. “You failed, but the individual and personal cost of the lives lost and the grievous wounds inflicted are immense.”

‘A lifetime of utter silence’

Responding to news of the terrorist’s sentence, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern paid tribute to members of the Muslim community who had shared their testimony in court during the week.

“You relived the horrific events of March 15 to chronicle what happened that day and the pain it has left behind,” Ardern said.

“Nothing will take the pain away but I hope you felt the arms of New Zealand around you through this whole process, and I hope you continue to feel that through all the days that follow.”

While the trauma of March 15 would not easily heal, Ardern hoped today was “the last where we have any cause to hear or utter the name of the terrorist behind it”.

“His deserves to be a lifetime of complete and utter silence.”

Worst mass shooting in NZ’s history

On March 15, the terrorist drove to Masjid Al-Noor in Christchurch and opened fire during Friday prayers. In the course of the attack, 42 people were murdered there and two others died of their wounds in hospital. The man then drove to Linwood Mosque and resumed shooting, murdering another seven people.

The attack was live-streamed for 17 minutes on Facebook, which then froze the stream and took it down. More than 1.5 million copies of the video were uploaded to Facebook in the subsequent 24 hours and 1.2 million of these uploads were blocked.

The summary of facts, read earlier this week in the Christchurch High Court, reveal the gunman intended to burn down Masjid An-Nur and Linwood Islamic Centre after the shootings. He told police he wanted to shoot more people than he did, and, if he hadn’t been caught, had intended to attack the Ashburton mosque.

The gunman was motivated by white supremacy and a belief in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which posits that Western civilisation and the white race will be destroyed by non-white migrants who have higher birth rates than Europeans.

The attack was the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history and led to an immediate change in gun laws.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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