A brave Christchurch massacre victim has recalled the horrifying moment he hid beneath dead bodies to save himself from a crazed gunman.
The four-day sentencing hearing for Australian mass shooter Brenton Tarrant began in Christchurch High Court on Monday morning.
Victims and family members of the 51 people murdered by the 29-year-old travelled from across the world, Australia and New Zealand to give evidence.
Turkish immigrant Temel Atacocugu, who was shot nine times and seriously wounded in the left arm, jaw, chest, left thigh and lower legs, stood by his teenage sons as he fronted his attacker in court.
Mr Atacocugu described how he ‘thought he was going to die’ when Tarrant opened fired in Al Noor mosque on March 15 last year.
The father called on his former military training and played dead – a decision he credits with saving his life.
‘The gunman and I looked into each other’s eyes, I saw the moment when I was the target of his gun,’ he said, news.com.au reports.
‘As I lay under the bodies in the mosque I thought I was going to die. I tried to lie as still as possible when the gunman came back a second time. I knew if I moved he would have executed me as he did the others. I could feel the blood and brains of the persons above me running down my face and neck.’
‘I know if I had moved I wouldn’t be here today.’
Mr Atacocugu is one of sixty-six that will be offered the chance to speak and share their loss.
Justice Cameron Mander will bear their suffering in mind when giving his sentence at the end of the lengthy hearing, which is expected to be life imprisonment, and possibly with no chance of parole.
‘That’s never been imposed in New Zealand,’ renowned local lawyer Nigel Hampton QC told TVNZ.
‘But (Justice Mander) in his discretion can say ‘sorry but no, you’re serving life imprisonment without the right to apply for parole’.’
On March 15 last year, Tarrant attacked Al-Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, killing 51 worshippers while live-streaming his crimes.
Those videos and images continue to live on dark corners of the internet despite the efforts of the NZ Government and tech companies to remove them.
Tarrant has pleaded guilty to 51 murders, 40 attempted murders and one terrorism charge.
He also sacked his legal team last month and will represent himself.
Mr Hampton said Tarrant’s decision to represent himself and be present in the courtroom, and the sheer weight of family members to give evidence, would mean ‘the emotional temperature in that courtroom is going to rise considerably’.
However, not all of the 50-plus victims who have travelled from around the world – including Australia, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore – will make it to Christchurch.
Nine who were granted entry by the government ‘have been unable to reach New Zealand in time due to COVID-related travel disruptions’, according to Victims Support NZ.
They will instead watch the livestream of proceedings from their hotel rooms where they are undergoing mandatory isolation.
Christchurch’s justice precinct has been transformed ahead of the week, with Tarrant reportedly staying in the building which houses both the courtroom and police headquarters in the city’s CBD.
The 29-year-old returned to Canterbury on Sunday for the first time since the atrocity, flown from Auckland on an Air Force Hercules plane and taken by local police and corrections staff.
Heavily armed police are stationed on both sides of the building, which has been barricaded off from the street, with local media capturing images of military-style vehicles in the precinct.
Armed police also are also keeping watch outside the two mosques that Tarrant attacked.