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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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Family pay emotional tribute to ‘loving’ man shot dead in ‘targeted attack’

The family of a man shot dead in a suspected targeted attack have paid tribute to him as a "loving son" and "devoted stepdad”.

Stephen Maguire, 27, died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen following the shooting in Birkdale, Southport, on Monday.

Merseyside Police said emergency services were called to a home in Guildford Road shortly after 11.35pm to reports of a shooting.

Mr Maguire, from Birkdale, had been shot twice, in the leg and abdomen, with a handgun.

A woman and a six-year-old child were reportedly upstairs at the time of the incident, police previously said.

It is understood the shooting may have happened downstairs or just outside the house.

The attackers left the scene in a dark-coloured Mercedes, in the direction of New Cut Lane, but at least one of them is believed to have left on a scrambler bike.

Ambulance crews treated Mr Maguire but he was pronounced dead in hospital.

Stephen’s partner Megan said: "Stephen was the most caring and loving boyfriend.

"Not only that, he was my best friend.

"He was a devoted stepdad to Keisha, who gave the best cuddles and will always be loved and remembered as an amazing man.

"Goodnight baby I love you forever.”

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In a statement released by Merseyside Police on Friday, Mr Maguire's family said: “Stephen was an adored son to his mother and father and an amazing brother to his two brothers and three sisters.

"Stephen's unconditional love for his dogs was well known and they were never from his side.

"He would do anything to protect his family and friends, without a second thought for himself.

"Stephen was a selfless person who wouldn't hesitate to offer help to anyone, whether family, friends or complete strangers.”

Anyone with information on the incident is asked to contact Merseyside Police.

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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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