March 19, 2019 10:33:21 AM
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- The white supremacist accused of gunning down 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand has dismissed his lawyer and opted to represent himself at trial, prompting the prime minister to declare Tuesday that she would do everything in her power to deny him a platform for his racist views.
"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. "He obviously had a range of reasons for committing this atrocious terrorist attack. Lifting his profile was one of them. And that's something that we can absolutely deny him."
Asked if she would like the trial to occur behind closed doors, Ardern demurred, saying that was not her decision to make.
"One thing I can assure you -- you won't hear me speak his name," she said.
The gunman's desire for infamy was made clear by the fact that he left behind a convoluted 74-page manifesto before Friday's massacre and livestreamed footage of his attack on the Al Noor mosque.
The video prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation by lawmakers and members of the public. Facebook said it removed 1.5 million videos of the shootings during the first 24 hours after the massacre. But on Tuesday, Ardern expressed frustration that the video remained available online, four days after the attack.
"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.
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. He 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 immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Tuesday.
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."
Peters said Tarrant didn't tell him why he wanted to represent himself.
Separately, Ardern has said gun law reforms would be announced within 10 days of the attack and an inquiry conducted into intelligence and security services that failed 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 in a statement that it had not received any relevant information or intelligence ahead of the shootings.
Meanwhile, Christchurch was beginning to return to a semblance of normalcy 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.
The close-knit community has been deeply wounded by the attacks. On Monday evening, more than 1,000 students from rival Christchurch schools and different religions gathered in a park across from the Al Noor mosque, joining voices in a passionate display of unity.
The students sat on the grass in the fading daylight, lifting flickering candles to the sky as they sang a traditional Maori song. Hundreds then stood to perform an emotional, defiant haka, the famed ceremonial dance of the indigenous Maori people.
For many, joining the vigil for the victims of the mass shooting was a much-needed opportunity to soothe their minds after a wrenching few days.
Most of the students spent hours locked down in their schools on Friday as police tried to determine if any other shooters were involved in the attacks.
Those at the vigil told harrowing tales of being forced to hide under classroom tables or on a school stage behind a curtain, of being instructed not to speak, and to urinate in a bucket rather than risk leaving the classroom for a bathroom.
Sarah Liddell, 17, said many of her peers felt intense anxiety since the attack. There was a sense of safety in coming together on Monday, she said.
"I feel like it's just really important to show everyone that one act of violence doesn't define a whole city," she said. "This is one of the best ways to show everyone coming together. Some schools have little funny rivalries, but in times like this we all just come together and that's all forgotten."
The students draped a fence along the park with chains of colorful paper notes, each emblazoned with messages of love and hope and sorrow: "You are not alone." ''This is your home. You are part of us." ''We all bleed the same colour."
Relatives of the dead are still anxiously awaiting word on when they can bury their loved ones. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours.
Ardern has said authorities hope to release all the bodies by Wednesday and police said authorities are working with pathologists and coroners to complete the task as soon as they can.