New Zealand has opened an inquest into the murder of 51 people by a self-proclaimed white supremacist at two Christchurch mosques in 2019.
“I ask simply that we keep each of the 51 people whose lives have been lost, and that common goal at the centre of this hearing,” Deputy Chief Coroner Brigitte Windley said as she opened proceedings on Tuesday.
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Windley said the inquiry, which is scheduled to last six weeks, would “seek to shine a light” on what happened and would consider making recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar event happening again.
The March 15, 2019 attacks in the southern city were the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history, and shocked the country. The gunman, Australian Brenton Tarrant, is now serving a whole-life sentence in prison after being convicted on 51 charges of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one charge of committing a terrorist act.
Family and friends packed the court for the emotionally charged opening session, which included a traditional Maori welcome, a reading from the Quran and a moving video tribute to each of the victims.
The inquiry will examine 10 issues including the response by emergency services and hospital staff, whether the gunman had direct assistance from any other person and the cause of death for each of the deceased.
Windley is not expected to release her findings until some time in 2024.
Observers were shown a harrowing video depicting the gunman’s movements around Christchurch on the day of the attack, including footage he had filmed using a GoPro camera.
Armed with semiautomatic weapons, Tarrant first attacked Friday worshippers at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque before driving to the nearby Linwood Islamic Centre, livestreaming the killings. His victims were all Muslim and included children, women and the elderly. Two people died from their injuries in hospital.
The inquest will examine the response times of police and emergency services, the medical response at each of the mosques, whether Tarrant was helped in planning the attack, and whether any lives could have been saved.
“This pursuit of truth is crucial for healing and closure,” said Maha Galal, spokesperson for the 15 March Whanau Trust representing some of the victims’ relatives.
The families of the victims “are united in their pursuit of understanding, seeking clarity on whether their loved ones could have survived”, Galal added.
Then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern moved quickly to tighten gun laws in the aftermath of the attacks and put pressure on social media giants to curb online extremism.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the shootings found that intelligence services had been distracted from far-right threats because they were too focused on the “threat of Islamist extremist” activity. But the 800-page report concluded that while mistakes had been made, the attacks could not have been prevented.
Following its release, Ardern apologised for the government’s shortcomings, and acknowledged its failings.
“Ultimately, this roughly 800-page report can be distilled into one simple premise: Muslim New Zealanders should be safe,” she said. “Anyone who calls New Zealand home, regardless of race, religion, sex or sexual orientation should be safe.”
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies