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Christchurch terrorist chooses not to attend court to launch his own legal challenge

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Auckland
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/AFP/Getty Images

The Christchurch terrorist who said he wanted to take the government to court over a lack of access to news and letters in jail and his designation as a terrorist entity has failed to attend the first court hearing on the matter.

The hearing in Auckland, New Zealand, was indefinitely postponed and the terrorist must ask to have it rescheduled after his no show on Thursday.

Brenton Tarrant, a 30-year-old Australian, was jailed for life in August last year without the chance of parole for the murder of 51 Muslim worshippers at al Noor and Linwood mosques on 15 March 2019, the attempted killing of dozens more, and a terrorism charge.

He remains in a maximum security prison in Auckland, where he is in solitary confinement. He was due to represent himself over the phone at Thursday’s high court hearing.

It was convened after he said in a letter to the high court on 27 February that he wanted to challenge his conditions in jail and official designation as a terrorist. His complaint was made shortly before the second anniversary of the attacks.

The latest court appointment was meant to confirm that he wished to pursue his complaints, whether he planned to engage a lawyer, and other practical matters. After he chose not to attend, citing a lack of access to documents, the judge postponed the hearing indefinitely; the terrorist must ask for the case to continue.

His request for a judicial review – an examination of whether official actions were lawful – of decisions about his mail and label as a terrorist, does not affect his 2020 guilty plea to all the charges he faced.

It also will not change his sentence of life without the chance of ever being released from jail; he was the first person in New Zealand’s modern history to receive such a punishment.

The gunman broadcast footage of the mass shootings live on Facebook and published a document online about his ideology – prompting unprecedented efforts by New Zealand’s government to limit the spread of his views and his ability to use his platform to spread racist hatred.

His mail has been restricted since it emerged in August 2019 that he had sent at least one inciting letter to a supporter, which was posted on a message board associated with white supremacists.

At the time, New Zealand’s prison authorities said they had changed their handling of Tarrant’s mail, and it would be vetted by a specialist team. They said he should not have been allowed to send the letter that emerged online.

New Zealand law allows prisoners to receive mail unless there is good reason not to.

Prison authorities have refused to detail the exact nature of the restrictions on Tarrant’s correspondence. Officials confirmed in August last year that the only television he was permitted to watch was the Home and Garden channel.

In a statement at the time, the Corrections Department said it was managing his imprisonment in accordance with New Zealand laws and international conventions.

His designation as a terrorist entity – he was the first individual, rather than a group, to be added to the list in a government ruling last September – makes it a crime to participate in and support his activities, or fund them, or for the terrorist to attempt to recruit others to his ideology. It likely further curtails the correspondence he can send and receive from prison.

Some of the attack’s survivors and the bereaved families noted that the hearing fell on the second day of Ramadan, a holy month of spirituality and fasting for Muslims. As his criminal case wound through the courts over more than a year, the families had complained that the gunman at times smiled and laughed during hearings, and they feared he would manipulate the legal process to generate attention or spread his views.