World News

Accused New Zealand mosque shooter pleads guilty to 51 murders, terrorism

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A suspected white supremacist accused of killing 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand’s worst mass shooting changed his plea to guilty in a surprise move on Thursday.

Brenton Tarrant, who appeared by video link, admitted to 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one charge of committing a terrorist act in a hastily called Christchurch High Court hearing.

“He has been convicted of each and every one of those charges,” presiding judge Justice Cameron Mander said in minutes of the hearing released by the court.

“The entry of guilty pleas represents a very significant step towards bringing finality to this criminal proceeding,” Justice Mander said.

Tarrant has been in police custody since March 15, 2019, when he was arrested and accused of using semi-automatic weapons to target Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch. The attack was streamed live on Facebook.

Tarrant, a 29-year-old Australian, had previously pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Justice Mander said there was now no need for the six week trial that was previously due to begin on June 2.

The court will now sentence Tarrant on all 92 charges, but did not provide a date for that sentencing. Tarrant was remanded in custody until May 1.

Due to a nationwide lockdown in place for the coronavirus outbreak, Thursday’s court hearing took place with just 17 people in the courtroom, which included minimal staff, lawyers and some local media. An Iman for each of the two mosques attacked were also allowed to attend the hearing.

New Zealand announced a nationwide lockdown starting on Thursday, to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The court placed a one-hour embargo on reporting the news in order to inform family members and victims about what had taken place before it was made public.

“The guilty plea today will provide some relief to the many people whose lives were shattered by what happened on March 15,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.

“These guilty pleas and conviction bring accountability for what happened and also save the families who lost loved ones, those who were injured, and other witnesses, the ordeal of a trial,” she said.

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UPDATE 2-NZ central bank slashes rates by 75 bps over coronavirus fears

* RBNZ cuts cash rate to 0.25%

* Agrees to keep OCR at this level for at least 12 months

* Bank increased cap requirements delayed by 12 months (Recasts with more detail)

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON, Mar 16 (Reuters) – The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) slashed interest rates by 75 basis points on Monday, sinking the country’s currency, as it prepared for a “significant” impact on the economy from the coronavirus outbreak.

The unprecedented move follows rate cuts by central banks around the world, including the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Australian Central Bank, as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to disrupt trade, tourism and domestic production.

The bank cut the official cash rate (OCR) to 0.25%, and its monetary policy committee agreed unanimously to keep the OCR at this level for at least 12 months, RBNZ said in its statement.

The New Zealand dollar fell over 2% at one stage after the surprise cut, but later recovered slightly, settling at $0.5985

“The negative economic implications of the COVID-19 virus continue to rise, warranting further monetary stimulus,” the bank said.

“Demand for New Zealand’s goods and services will be constrained, as will domestic production. Spending and investment will be subdued for an extended period while the responses to the COVID-19 virus evolve,” the statement said.

The negative impact from the virus on New Zealand’s economy is, and will continue to be, significant, it added.

The Committee also agreed that should further stimulus be required, it prefers to undertake large-scale asset purchases of government bonds rather than cut the OCR further.

The bank however said New Zealand’s financial system remains sound and major financial institutions are well capitalised and liquid.

“Immediate and sizeable action was needed, and it brings the RBNZ into the line with the actions of central banks overseas,” ANZ Bank Chief Economist Sharon Zollner said in a note.

ANZ said RBNZ was likely to move to unconventional policy as soon as was practicable.

The scheduled OCR review on March 25 has now been cancelled, the bank said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced tough new measures on Saturday to protect the country against the virus by declaring everyone entering the country must self-isolate.

There are so far eight confirmed cases of coronavirus in New Zealand.

The government plans to announce a significant business continuity plan on Tuesday with a fiscal package to provide both targeted and broad-based economic stimulus.

RBNZ said an extraordinary session of the monetary policy committee had been called on Saturday in response to the rapidly deteriorating economic situation relating to COVID-19.

RBNZ said it as has also decided to delay the start date of increased capital requirements for banks by 12 months, to July 1, 2021. (Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Alexander Smith, Diane Craft and Jan Harvey)

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World News

Ahead of mosque attack anniversary, Twitter targets online polarizations

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – Twitter Inc said it was looking at ways of countering polarizations on its platform, as it launched a new project ahead of the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at mosques in New Zealand.

The plans were announced this week as New Zealand prepares for a memorial of the attack in Christchurch on March 15 last year, in which 51 people were killed when a gunman attacked Muslims attending Friday prayers, broadcasting the shooting live on Facebook.

The attack inspired more online hate and polarizations, experts have said.

Twitter would partner with the University of Otago’s National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in the project that looks at ways to counter “digitally amplified polarizations”, the social media firm said in a statement this week.

By looking at Twitter data before, during, and after the attack the research will study how conversations can be used to “to promote tolerance and inclusion instead of division and exclusion,” it said.

Twitter and other tech firms like Facebook and YouTube signed up last year to a global initiative called “Christchurch Call” launched by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that aimed to bring together governments and companies to eradicate extremist material being shared online.

Ardern said at a news conference on Friday that 48 countries, six tech companies and three organizations have joined the initiative, and the online distribution of violent videos in recent attacks have been “far, far diminished” due to coordination between the group.

The Christchurch attack was live-streamed on Facebook for 17 minutes, and its copies were later shared on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook-owned Whatsapp and Instagram.

Millions of copies of the footage were later taken down but despite that videos of the attack still remain online, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) said in a statement on Saturday.

CEP, a private group that monitors and reports extremist content online, said the video, clips of the video, and content celebrating the attack remain easily locatable on file hosting websites, chan-style message boards, and video streaming platforms.

“Sadly, the Christchurch video remains a case study of how sites and platforms continue to be misused by extremists, especially when tech companies fail to take the steps necessary to prevent the hosting or broadcasting of extremist content,” CEP said in a statement.

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