The man accused of murdering 51 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques last year has changed his plea to guilty, according to New Zealand Police.
Last year, Australian citizen Brenton Tarrant pleaded not guilty to 92 charges, including 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act, the first time such a charge has been issued inside the country.
But, appearing via audiovisual link from a prison in Auckland, Tarrant pleaded guilty on all counts at a hearing in the Christchurch High Court on Thursday morning. He is expected back in court in May. New Zealand Police say Tarrant will not be sentenced until it is possible for all victims who wish to attend the hearing to do so — something that may be delayed by the current pandemic.
The High Court hearing comes as New Zealand goes into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, with only essential services — including courts — allowed to stay open.
Tarrant's admission of guilt also comes just days after the anniversary of the deadly attack, which took place on March 15 last year and was New Zealand's worst mass shooting in modern history.
Under New Zealand law, murder carries a life sentence and convicted murderers must spend at least 10 years in prison before they are eligible for parole.
Guilty plea welcomed
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the guilty plea would "provide some relief to the many people whose lives were shattered" by the attacks.
Arrangements for the court hearing were made on short notice after Tarrant indicated on Tuesday via his lawyers that he wanted to be brought before the court, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said in a statement.
"Police appreciate this news will come as a surprise to the victims and the public, some of whom may have wished to be present in the courtroom," Bush said. The two Imams from the Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Center — the two mosques targeted in the attack — were in the courtroom to represent victims, Bush added.
"While the sentencing hearing is still pending, today's guilty pleas are a significant milestone in respect of one of our darkest days," Bush said. "I want to acknowledge the victims, their families and the community of Christchurch — the many lives that were changed forever."
Ahmed Khan, who was inside Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch during the attack, said that he heard about Tarrant's plea in an email sent by the court to victims on Thursday morning.
"It's pretty surprising," said Khan, who held an injured man as he died in his arms. "I'm quite happy that he's pleading guilty to all the charges so we don't have to see his face during a long trial."
He said victims were worried that the trial -- which had been scheduled for June -- would be dragged out by Tarrant so that he could get extra attention.
"(People in the court room) were really angry and got really emotional because it seemed like the offender was not sorry," Khan said. "Now we are hoping for a good outcome."
Aftermath of the deadly attack
Tarrant was arrested within 21 minutes of the first emergency calls being received by police.
Almost all of the victims died at Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Center. Only two died later in the hospital, including a Turkish citizen who died in May.
The victims hailed from all around the world, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Less than a month after the shooting, New Zealand lawmakers voted to change the country's gun laws to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons.