Christchurch: A right-wing extremist flashed a white power gesture as he faced the first of many murder charges in a New Zealand court on Saturday, while a shellshocked community dug graves for 49 mosque-goers he stands accused of slaying.
Australia-born, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant stood largely impassive in the dock wearing handcuffs and a white prison smock, as the judge read the first of what are expected to be a host of murder charges that could mean he dies in jail.
Flanked by armed police, the former personal fitness trainer gestured an upside-down “okay”, a symbol used by white power groups worldwide.
He did not request bail and was taken into custody until his next court appearance which was scheduled for April 5.
Outside the courtroom, Christchurch residents struggled to deal with the aftermath of what is thought to be the worst act of terror against Muslims in the West.
At an old gravesite, excavators were called in to remove the vast amount of earth needed to bury the dead, although police have not yet been able to release the bodies to anxious families. At the nearby hospital, doctors worked round the clock to treat 39 people for gunshot wounds and other injuries sustained in the attacks. The wounded included a two-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl.
The attack on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques has prompted an outpouring of grief and deep shock in this usually peaceful country, which prides itself on welcoming refugees fleeing violence or persecution.
Throughout the day people laid flowers at a makeshift memorial just beyond the police cordon around the Al Noor mosque, where most of the victims died.
Many were accompanied with handwritten letters laden with sadness and disbelief, from residents of what one local driver called the “city of sorrow”.
“I am so sorry that you were not safe here. Our hearts are breaking for your loss,” read one of the notes marked with a string of x-kisses.