New Zealand Officials Admit Letting Christchurch Suspect Send Hateful Letter
Version 3 of 4.
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The prison authorities in New Zealand acknowledged on Wednesday that they had mistakenly allowed the man charged in the Christchurch mosque attacks to send at least one letter from jail calling for racial violence.
The accused gunman has been barred from sending or receiving mail until officials are sure that they can prevent him from distributing more hateful messages.
The letter, which echoed a manifesto attributed to the shooting suspect that was posted online before the massacre in March, was uploaded to a message board by a supporter who claimed to have received it.
The lapse by prison officials was particularly embarrassing for the New Zealand authorities because, in the days after the attacks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other leaders said they would do everything they could to deny the suspect any further platform to spread white supremacist views.
The manifesto, as well as a video live-streamed on social media as the killings unfolded, were deemed objectionable content by the country’s chief censor shortly after the attacks. Possession or distribution of them is punishable by a prison term of up to 14 years.
The existence of the letter came to light a day before the next court date was scheduled for the suspect, Brenton Tarrant. He has pleaded not guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and a charge of terrorism.
[Australia is cracking down on violent content online. But enforcement is complicated.]
The accused gunman waived his right to appear at Thursday’s court hearing — where he was represented by his lawyers — either in person, or, as he has in the past, by video from New Zealand’s only maximum security jail in Auckland, where he remains in custody.
It is common for defendants in New Zealand to waive their rights to appear at procedural hearings as Thursday’s was. The judge suppressed the content of the hearing — which discussed a matter related to the trial — to avoid prejudicing members of the public who may be selected for the jury.
Mr. Tarrant’s lawyers have made an application to hold his trial — which had been scheduled for next May — in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, not Christchurch. The court is also considering a change to the trial date, which had been due to start during Ramadan, an important month of prayer and fasting for Muslims. The trial is now likely to begin three to four weeks later.
The hearing had a starkly different tone to Mr. Tarrant’s previous court dates, when the public gallery had usually been packed with victims of the shootings and relatives of those who died, with no seats remaining for interested bystanders.
On Thursday, reporters outnumbered members of the local Muslim community in court. About 200 people from the two Christchurch mosques that were attacked on March 15 have traveled to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage, as guests of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes if their physical and financial circumstances permit, but Muslims in far-flung New Zealand said they had previously been constrained from doing so because they could not afford the travel costs.
Kelvin Davis, New Zealand’s corrections minister, told Radio New Zealand on Thursday that the letter that appeared online this week was one of five Mr. Tarrant had been allowed to send. He had been barred from posting two others.
Mr. Davis said the suspect had received “a couple of dozen” letters from around the world, some of which had been kept from him. New Zealand law allows prisoners to receive mail unless there is good reason they should not.
The corrections agency has issued an apology and said it would bar Mr. Tarrant from sending letters until it can be sure it has proper processes in place to check them.
Photos of the letter circulating on the internet showed plain lined notepaper covered in childlike handwriting, the corners of each page carefully numbered.
In it, Mr. Tarrant begins with nonchalant recollections about a 2015 trip to Russia, where his correspondent apparently lives, before veering into his racist influences and ending with a call to violence.
Mr. Tarrant, an Australian who moved to New Zealand about two years before the attacks, writes that he cannot go into detail about his regrets or feelings, “as the guards will confiscate my letter if I do (to use as evidence).”
When the letter was posted to the online message board 4Chan — notorious for its anonymity and trolling — commenters said they doubted its provenance. But New Zealand’s corrections agency confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that a letter by an unnamed prisoner “should have been withheld.”
The statement added that there had been changes to the management of the prisoner’s mail to ensure that “our robust processes are as effective as we need them to be.”
The agency said that it could withhold prisoners’ mail only in “a very limited range of circumstances,” and that some letters had already been withheld.
Ms. Ardern, the prime minister, told reporters that “this particular bit of communications just should not have happened.”
“Obviously, this is an offender who has a very specific goal in mind in terms of sharing his propaganda, so we should have been prepared for that,” she said.
Ms. Ardern has led a global campaign urging governments and social media platforms to cooperate in efforts to remove extremism from their platform.
Mr. Tarrant’s next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Christchurch.