Christchurch mosque attack suspect pleads not guilty, trial set for next year

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — An Australian man pleaded not guilty Friday to 92 charges stemming from a massacre in two mosques in Christchurch three months ago and will stand trial next May.

A lone gunman armed with semi-automatic weapons attacked Muslims attending Friday prayers in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island on March 15, killing 51 people in the country’s worst peace-time mass shooting. The attacker broadcast the shooting live on Facebook.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced tough new firearm laws banning semi-automatic weapons after the attack, which also wounded dozens more people.

Brenton Tarrant, 29, a suspected white supremacist, appeared by video link from a maximum security facility in Auckland while his lawyer entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. The accusations against him include one terrorism charge.

About 80 members of Christchurch’s Muslim community and dozens of media representatives attended the hearing in a packed courtroom, with many seated in another room watching by video.

High Court Justice Cameron Mander said the trial would begin on May 4. The prosecution expected the trial would take around six weeks, although Mander said defense lawyers believed it could take considerably longer.

Courts normally try to bring cases to trial within a year but Mander said “the scale and complexity of this case makes this challenging.”

Tarrant has been remanded in custody until Aug. 15, when the next case review hearing is scheduled.

Mander said Tarrant was fit to stand trial after the court ordered him on April 5 to undergo a mental health assessment.

“No issue arises regarding the defendant’s fitness to plead, to instruct counsel, and to stand his trial. A fitness hearing is not required,” Mander said in a statement released after Friday’s hearing.

The court lifted an order last week suppressing the publication of pictures of Tarrant. An interim suppression order barring the publication of the identity of survivors also lapsed and will not be reinstated.

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