There were no tears as Imam Gamal Fouda stood to address the court, with the Christchurch terrorist just a few metres away.
He had suffered a horrific toll from the hatred of Brenton Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist who stormed his mosque to kill and injure dozens of people, but as the sentencing began the Muslim leader addressed him directly to speak of the strength and love in his community.
“I do not want to talk about the things that I witnessed that day, other than I saw many people in my community and friends pass away or injured,” he told the killer.
“If you have done anything, you have brought the world community close with your evil actions.”
His proud defiance was echoed by Khaled Alnobani, another survivor of the attack at Al Noor Mosque, who turned to face the killer and deliver a message directly.
“We are not broken, we are become more united, and thank you for that,” he said.
Tarrant, 29, is before the High Court at Christchurch to be sentenced on 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and a terror charge for massacres at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in March 2019.
Families are preparing to give 66 victim impact statements over the next few days in a hearing that is as unprecedented as it is unusual, due to the high level of security and the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Officials have gone to great lengths to help the families feel safe, and snipers could be seen scanning the surrounds from the roof of the court building this morning, as dog crews combed the streets for any evidence of explosive devices.
The Level 2 Covid-19 restrictions have also forced the court to innovate and open seven different overflow courtrooms to live stream the proceedings for families, so they can ensure the proper social distancing is followed.
And it was in the face of all of this that the Imam made his address to the terrorist, who is appearing in person after being flown into Christchurch on a military plane yesterday.
The 45-year-old first spoke about how he had always felt safe in Christchurch, saying the doors to Al Noor Mosque were once left unlocked “pretty much” all the time.
“That all changed for me on the 15th of March 2019 and the terrorist actions that changed that peaceful place, both at Al Noor Mosque, Linwood mosque and Christchurch itself,” he told the court.
“I lived with that nightmare afterwards, I focused my energies into supporting my community as they dealt with the death and injured. I found it very hard as the community expected me as one of the leaders to stand before them and work through the challenges.”
He spoke of the horror of having to identify the victims using wallets and bank accounts and arranging for the bodies to be returned to families.
Later, the sadness in the eyes of the children he taught, would also sit heavily with him.
“One of the hardest times for me was the announcement of the community of the names of those who were dead in conjunction to the police,” he said.
“You were misguided and mistaken, we are peaceful and loving community, we did not deserve your action. We go to the mosque for peace and worship, your hatred is unnecessary.”
He also made a strong rebuke of the terrorist’s ideology, saying the love shown to the Muslim community following the attack helped to counteract the hate.
“I love New Zealand and our society showed love and support for us, and this response for our community was the opposite of what the terrorist wanted. The world saw New Zealand as what it was, and the terrorist was seen as a criminal,” he said.
“New Zealand is seen by the world as a model of compassion, love and harmony. The letters, cards and tributes from people in New Zealand and overseas gave power to all of us.”
He also delivered a message to the terrorist’s family and his home country.
“I say to the family of the terrorist, they have lost a son, and we have lost many from our community too. I respect them as they are suffering as we are. Australia is our neighbour, and we are all one against hate and racism.”
Other victim impact statements described the deep pain of losing loved ones, and the ongoing physical and mental trauma they face due to the attack.
Their victim impact statements will continue over the next few days.
Tarrant carefully planned attack over months – prosecutors
Earlier this morning, prosecutors laid bare the meticulous level of detail Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant went to as he planned the horrifying assault on the city’s mosques, describing how he spent 18 months carefully preparing for the attack.
Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes read the summary of facts to court, detailing how the gunman had applied for and was granted a New Zealand firearms licence in September 2017, some 18 months before the attack, and spent more than a year stockpiling high-powered weapons, ammunition and other equipment.
He began practising with the weapons at several different rifle clubs and started formulating a plan to inflict as many fatalities as possible, obtaining “a large amount of information about mosques in New Zealand,” the prosecutor said.
The information included detailed mosque plans, interior pictures of the mosques, mosque locations, and specific details such as prayer times and important days in the Islamic calendar to ensure the buildings would be full of worshipers.
Two months before the attack, on January 8, 2019, the terrorist drove to Christchurch to conduct “reconnaissance” on Al Noor Mosque, flying a drone directly overhead to film the mosque grounds and buildings, honing in on the entry and exit doors.
He then chose Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre as his “primary targets”, making detailed notes on the timings of the entry and exit.
He also planned unsuccessfully to travel to Ashburton to attack the town’s mosque, which sits some 90km to the south of Christchurch.
Mr Hawes described how the terrorist then left his home in Dunedin early on the morning of March 15, 2019, and drove north to Christchurch with an array of weapons and other equipment in his car.
That included a large collection of firearms, including a semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun, a pump-action shotgun, two different AR-15 models, a level action rifle and a bolt action rifle.
He also carried a large amount of ammunition pre-loaded into magazines, ballistic armour, a military-style tactical vest and four modified petrol containers, which he intended to use to burn down the buildings following the massacre.
The weapons were inscribed with references to “various names and dates” referencing historic figures and events, such as battles and figures in the Crusades, more recent terror attacks and symbols used by the Latvian, Hungarian, Estonian and Norwegian SS.
He arrived in Christchurch at 12:55pm and parked near Al Noor Mosque to make his final preparations, wrapping a bulletproof vest around the back of the driver’s seat for ballistic protection and arranging the weapons within arms reach.
The court heard how he mounted a GoPro to his helmet, and attached an audio speaker to the front of his vest, through which he played loud music.
Finally, in the minutes directly before the attack, he sent explicit threats and other documents to an extremist website, as well the New Zealand Government, and sent messages to his family.
He then stormed the building with the camera streaming live, carrying out some of the most horrific and brutal murders in New Zealand history, with the summary outlining repeated sustained efforts to kill as many people as possible, regardless of their age, gender or stature.
The attack continued for several minutes, inside and outside of the building, leading to the deaths of 44 people and injuring of 35 others.
He then left to travel to Linwood Islamic Centre and carried out a similar attack, killing seven people and injuring five others.
Police apprehended his vehicle on a nearby street shortly afterwards, ramming his car, arresting him, and taking him into custody before he could reach the Ashburton mosque.
Later, in a police interview, the terrorist admitted the facts as stated, saying he wanted to kill as many people as possible and that he wished he also had been able to burn down the mosques.
He expressed a range of hateful racist and white supremacist views, saying he had taken planning steps on other mosques in across the country, before settling on Christchurch.
The sentencing continues and is expected to run for at least four days.