New Zealand’s Prime Minister calls for unity as first bodies are returned to families

Posted at 5:21 AM, Mar 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-19 05:51:40-04

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opened her first address to Parliament since the Christchurch terror attack by praising the “extraordinary courage” demonstrated by mosque worshipers and police during one of the country’s “darkest days.”

“There have rightly been questions around how this could have happened here. In a place that prides itself on being open, peaceful, diverse. And there is anger that it has happened here,” Ardern said Tuesday.

Ardern said that New Zealand authorities remain vigilant and on “high alert,” though there is no specific threat.

“We have seen in countries that know the horrors of terrorism more than us, there is a pattern of increased tension and actions over the weeks that follow that means we do need to ensure that vigilance is maintained,” she said.

Her calls for unity and vigilance came amid a rare statement from ISIS spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, accusing Ardern and other Western leaders of shedding “crocodile tears.”

Al-Muhajir called upon ISIS supporters to “take vengeance” in the aftermath of the attack in an almost 45-minute audio recording. It’s believed to be the first recording released by al-Muhajir in months.

Fifty people were killed last week when a 28-year-old Australian gunman opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch. Another 50 were injured, nine of whom remain in critical condition in intensive care, health officials said Monday.

On Tuesday, the bodies of six victims were returned to families, New Zealand Police confirmed to CNN in a statement.

“12 victims have been identified to the satisfaction of the Coroner and six of those identified victims have been returned to their families,” said a police spokesman. Police say they are working with families to return the other six identified victims.

Parliament members gathered in the House on Tuesday to share condolences for the victims. They will meet again on Wednesday, the same day Ardern intends to return to Christchurch.

On Saturday, she visited members of Christchurch’s Muslim community wearing a hijab in what observers lauded as a meaningful gesture of compassion and respect.

A pledge to overhaul gun laws

In her speech Tuesday, Ardern hinted at major changes to come in light of the terror attack, especially when it comes to New Zealand’s gun laws.

The Prime Ministerhad previously announced that a government inquiry will look into the circumstances leading up to Friday’s attack.

The inquiry will investigate what agencies knew — or should have known — about the gunman’s access to weapons or any impediments into the sharing of information, she said.

Addressing the gunman directly, Arden said she would do everything in her power to prevent him from gaining attention.

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is why you will never hear me mention his name,” said Arden.

“Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

Australian Brenton Harris Tarrant, 28, was charged with murder on Saturday. He is believed to be the only person responsible for the attacks.

Tarrant lived in the southern city of Dunedin, around 225 miles from Christchurch. Officials said he had no criminal history in New Zealand or Australia and had not drawn the attention of the intelligence community for extremist views.

Authorities said the assailant obtained the firearms used in the attack through legal means. Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters announced Monday evening that the cabinet has agreed to changes to New Zealand’s gun laws “in principle,” but the exact measures have not been revealed.

While acknowledging that “for a short period” the planned amendments might create uncertainty for some gun owners, Ardern said she believes “the vast majority” of New Zealand’s gun owners agree that change is needed.

Tech companies face increased scrutiny

Some of Ardern’s toughest rhetoric was reserved for social media and its ability to quickly disseminate “ideas and language of division and hate.”

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility,” she said.

“This of course doesn’t take away the responsibility we too must show as a nation, to confront racism, violence and extremism. I don’t have all of the answers now, but we must collectively find them.”

Facebook has come under heavy scrutiny for its handling of the case. The gunman live-streamed online. Facebook eventually took down the page and Twitter deleted the alleged perpetrator’s profile; but not before the video had spread like wildfire across social media.

Facebook Vice President and deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby said in a statement Tuesday that fewer than 200 people viewed the stream live, and none of them reported it. The video was viewed about 4,000 times before being removed, the statement read. Facebook also said in the first 24 hours after the attack, it removed about 1.5 million videos of the attack. More than 1.2 million of those videos were blocked at upload.

“We remain shocked and saddened by this tragedy and are committed to working with leaders in New Zealand, other governments, and across the technology industry to help counter hate speech and the threat of terrorism,” said Sonderby.

“We continue to work around the clock to prevent this content from appearing on our site, using a combination of technology and people.”