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Suspect in New Zealand mosque attacks appears in court via video

Christchurch High Court in New Zealand on Friday, the day of Brenton Tarrant’s latest court hearing. (Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The alleged perpetrator of back-to-back mosque massacres in New Zealand appeared via video from prison Friday to face a full sweep of charges linked to the attacks that claimed 50 lives and wounded dozens of people.

The suspect, Brenton Tarrant, 28, was charged with 50 counts of murder and 39 counts of attempted murder. Officials have indicated that further charges are possible from the twin attacks March 15 in Christchurch, New Zealand’s third-largest city.

Tarrant appeared via video link from Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison, New Zealand’s only maximum-security prison, where he is being held in isolation. He was not asked to enter a plea and will undergo a psychiatric assessment before he appears again on June 14.

Tarrant at times looked apathetic during the hearing but was alert while the assessment of his mental health was discussed.

More than 40 journalists packed a small chamber of the Christchurch High Court for the brief procedural hearing, while approximately 50 survivors of the massacre, some injured, and their families were given priority seating in the public gallery.

Tarrant attorney Shane Tait, who requested the psychiatric assessment, said it could take up to three months because of issues accessing his client.

The presiding judge, Justice Cameron Mander, ordered that no filming or recording take place in the court and that existing images be pixelated.

The court hearing comes amid escalating probes in Europe looking at links between Tarrant and far-right groups. On Thursday, a second donation by Tarrant to the anti-immigrant Identitarian Movement was confirmed.

Romain Espino, a spokesman for the French branch of the group, confirmed that it received a donation of about 1,000 euros, or about $1,200, from Tarrant in September 2017.

Early last year, Tarrant donated $1,700 to the head of the Austrian Identitarian Movement, which promotes fears that European culture could be overrun by Muslim migrants.

Friday’s court date was the second court appearance for Tarrant, an Australian citizen who was arrested on the day of the attacks. He was initially charged with one representative count of murder.

During that first hearing, Tarrant made a hand gesture commonly used by white-supremacist groups. He was remanded without a plea.

On Thursday, police announced a new set of charges against Tarrant that include the murder and attempted-murder counts.

Police and intelligence services across several countries have launched one of the largest investigations in the country’s history, notably taking a close look at Tarrant’s extensive travels, including visits to historic sites of 19th-century battles between Christians and Muslims.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described the events as “our darkest of days” and characterized the assaults as acts of terrorism.

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If convicted, Tarrant faces the prospect of life imprisonment without parole — and confirmation that he is among the deadliest white-nationalist-inspired mass murderers in recent years. Prosecutors have been debating whether to primarily pursue murder or terrorism charges.

The court proceedings take place against the backdrop of an intensifying national debate about tightening gun regulations.

On March 21, two groups of weapons were reclassified as military-style semiautomatics. A new bill proposing to ban such firearms and other weapons may become law as soon as next week.

An expedited select-committee process has prompted complaints by groups and individuals who oppose the changes and argue that the accelerated procedure has curtailed a full debate on the issue. They were given just one day to make oral submissions to the committee.

Opponents include David Tipple, owner of Gun City, New Zealand’s biggest weapons retailer. Tipple has acknowledged that his company sold firearms and ammunition to the accused shooter.

In Europe, investigators were trying to dig deeper into possible ties between the Identitarian factions and Tarrant.

Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office confirmed in a statement that probes were underway into possible money transfers to a group in France known as Generation Identitaire, but it did not provide any specifics. 

The agency also said it was still looking into possible links between Tarrant and Germany.

Espino, the French group’s spokesman, told The Washington Post that Tarrant’s donation was a “spontaneous gift online” and that there was no direct contact with him.

“Anyone can make a gift from anywhere on the planet,” he said in an interview. “We have no contact. We just received the money.”

The group claims it discovered the donation in a bank account that was closed about a year ago, amid an official investigation into the group’s activities. Espino said the group subsequently notified authorities of the discovery.

Noack reported from Berlin. McAuley reported from Madrid. Steve Addison in Christchurch contributed to this report.

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