New Zealand mosque gunman to represent himself at sentencing

The accused has pleaded guilty to 51 charges of murder after opening fire at two mosques in Christchurch during Friday prayers

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, Jonathan Hudson, left, and Shane Tait, defense lawyers for Brenton Tarrant, arrive at the Christchurch District Court in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tarrant who has admitting killing 51 worshippers in a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 has dismissed his legal team and will represent himself at a sentencing hearing next month. Tarrant’s sentencing hearing, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, will begin in Christchurch on Aug. 24, 2020 and could last more than three days.  (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
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The Australian gunman who admitted killing 51 worshippers in a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques has dismissed his lawyers and will represent himself when he is sentenced next month, raising fears he may use the court appearance to promote his white-supremacist views.

The accused pleaded guilty in March to 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act for the shootings in Christchurch in 2019.

The hearing on his sentencing, which is delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, is scheduled to begin in Christchurch on August 24 and could last more than three days. The date was confirmed at a High Court session in Christchurch on Monday that was attended by some shooting survivors.

The defence team, lawyers Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson, applied during Monday’s hearing for permission to withdraw as his counsel, a role they have filled since April 2019. They told the court they had been instructed by the accused to withdraw as he wishes to exercise his right to represent himself.

New Zealand Muslim Association president Ikhlaq Kashkari questioned the man's motives, saying victims could be re-traumatised if the gunman were allowed to spout far-right rhetoric from the dock.

"My first concern when I read this was 'Oh my God, what's this guy up to, is he going to use this as a platform to promote his views and thoughts?'," he told Agence France-Presse.

"A lot of people are still going through trauma and this was seen as one of those events that would give them closure. I hope it's not going to be something that will trigger more pain instead."

In March 2019, the accused shot dead Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers at two Christchurch mosques, live-streaming the killings as he carried out the carnage.

His victims included children, women and the elderly.

The former gym instructor unexpectedly reversed his not-guilty plea in March this year, removing the need for a lengthy trial.

He participated in Monday’s proceedings by video link from his Auckland jail. Justice Cameron Mander approved the request to dismiss the defence lawyers, saying he was satisfied he understood his right to legal representation and wished to waive that right.

A lawyer will still be appointed by the court to provide advice if the accused requests it. Mr Mander called for a pre-sentence report and statements from victims for the hearing.

The accused faces life imprisonment, with the judge having some discretion in deciding how many years Tarrant must serve before becoming eligible for parole.

The attacks targeting people praying at the mosques shocked New Zealand, where new laws were quickly approved banning the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons. It also prompted global changes to social media protocols after the gunman live-streamed his attack on Facebook, where it was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Survivors and the families of victims will be present during the three-day sentencing hearing and Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand spokeswoman Anjum Rahman said many would not want to hear from the accused.

While she did not want to speculate on the motive for representing himself, she said: "He has shown in the past that he likes to get attention and he wants attention.

"I feel this is all part of that mindset."