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Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda looks onto the courtroom.
Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda looks onto the courtroom. (Image: Supplied)

SocietyOctober 24, 2023

What you need to know about the March 15 coronial inquest

Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda looks onto the courtroom.
Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda looks onto the courtroom. (Image: Supplied)

A coroner’s inquiry into the 2019 terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques began today. What is it, how long will it take and what is its aim? 

What’s going on?

Starting today in the coroner’s court in Christchurch, this inquiry is intended to establish the “truth” of what occurred on March 15, 2019. That doesn’t mean in any criminal sense – that part of the investigation is over and the terrorist will remain behind bars, without parole, for life. Coroner Brigitte Windley explicitly stated that this is “not an inquiry into the life of the man responsible for the 51 deaths”.

In order to help prevent future incidents, the coronial inquiry is intended to investigate additional circumstances linked to the attack that have so far not been addressed. As Coronial Services’ website says, “A coronial inquiry is a process to find out the facts of a death. A coronial inquiry does not decide who is guilty of causing a death. If a coroner believes they need more evidence to find out the facts of a death, they can hold a hearing in court. This is called a coronial inquest. At a coronial inquest, a coroner will hear from witnesses and consider evidence.”

Aya Al-Umari, who lost his brother Hussain Al-Umari in the attack, told the Herald he hopes to get answers to some long-held questions as a result of the inquest. “Could they have been saved? Were the right processes followed? Were the right protocols followed correctly? Was there enough time to save anyone?” he said.

And it’s significant?

Yes. A coronial inquiry in and of itself isn’t unusual – these are typically held to investigate the circumstances surrounding unexpected or suspicious deaths. But this is the largest coronial inquest in New Zealand history. Because the terrorist pleaded guilty, there was no opportunity for the court to examine the roles played by emergency services in the aftermath of the attack. This inquest will provide that opportunity.

So that’s what is being investigated?

In part. There are 10 key issues being examined during the inquiry. They are:

  1. The events of 15 March 2019 starting from commencement of the attack through to the completion of the emergency response and [the terrorist’s] formal interview by Police.
  2. The response times and entry processes of Police and ambulance officers at each mosque.
  3. The triage and medical response at each mosque.
  4. The steps taken to apprehend the offender.
  5. The role of, and processes undertaken by, Christchurch Hospital in responding to the attack.
  6. Coordination between emergency services and first responders.
  7.  Did [the attacker] have assistance from any other person on 15 March 2019.
  8. If raised by immediate family, and to the extent it can be ascertained, the final movements and time of death for each of the deceased.
  9. The cause(s) of death for each deceased; and whether any death could have been averted had alternative medical triage and/or medical treatment been administered to the context of the attack.
  10. Whether Masjid an-Nur’s emergency exit door in the south-east corner of the main prayer room failed to function on 15 March 2019 to allow egress in the course of the attack, and if so, why?
Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda.
Masjid An-Nur (Al Noor Mosque) imam Gamal Fouda. (Photo: Supplied)

How many people are involved in the inquest?

In short, a lot. An inquest such as this is unprecedented in New Zealand. There are more than 140 “interested parties” in this inquest, which includes the immediate family of many of the 51 victims. It’s been reported that more than 600 people will attend some part of the hearing in person, while about 100 will watch online – this will mainly be family members who could not make the trip to New Zealand.

Those who lost their lives came from 21 countries and spoke 13 different languages. Coronial Services stated that this means a “range of additional measures” have been taken to ensure close whānau can be supported during the inquest, including translated content, cultural advice, court victim advisers, and taking a trauma-informed approach throughout the coronial process.

What else is being done to support the families of the victims?

As reported by The Press, meals are being prepared for them by Share Kai Cooks Collective (you can donate to this initiative here), and the public is being encouraged to share messages of support that will be displayed on bunting at public libraries in Christchurch.

When did this process begin?

The coronial process commenced in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but was put on hold while the criminal investigation began. It recommenced in late 2020 and almost a year later an inquiry was opened into each of the 51 deaths. The inquiry that started today is the “first phase” inquest. A full timeline can be found here.

How long will it take?

Six weeks have been set down, with the inquest set to conclude on December 15.

And will there be any further investigation?

It hasn’t been decided if there will be a second inquest, but some outstanding issues will be addressed following the first phase of the inquiry. These include whether the firearms licensing process that allowed the gunman to access his weapon can be “causally connected” to the attacks and whether the offender’s “online activity can be shown to have played a material role in his radicalisation”.

Kathryn Dalziel - counsel for some families.
Kathryn Dalziel – counsel for some families. (Image: Supplied)

Wasn’t there already an inquiry?

Yup. There was a  Royal Commission of Inquiry that took 20 months and was completed in late 2020. It made 44 recommendations across five areas, including that new hate speech legislation should be introduced (this work was put on hold earlier in the year by the outgoing Labour government).

While the Royal Commission was separate from the coronial inquiry, it was “considered closely” in setting the scope. The inquest is the third investigation undertaken into the attacks following the initial criminal proceedings and the Royal Commission. 

What has happened at the inquest so far?

At the time of publication, about a half a day of the inquest will have taken place. Before the inquest formally opened, there was a mihi whakatau and a reading of the Quran, reported The Press. There was then a tribute video played to honour those who lost their lives in the March 15 attack.

“I recognise that many of your lives have been forever impacted,” said coroner Brigitte Windley. “The events of March 15 can transition from dark to light, revealed by the evidence that we will hear… At the heart of each of these 51 inquiries is the person’s lives who’ve been lost.”

Is there any involvement from the terrorist in this proceeding?

At this point, no. However, he was at one point going to be involved during the discussion on whether he had any assistance with the attack. The Press reported that his status as an interested party was revoked and he is no longer expected to be involved in any phase of the inquiry. “There is a requirement under the Coroners Act to provide him with an opportunity to be heard about any proposed adverse comment the coroner may make in her findings,” The Press stated.

When will we learn anything from the inquest?

Any findings or recommendations will be revealed some time in 2024.

Update October 26: An earlier version of this article mentioned a second coronial inquest. This has been updated to state that no decision on a second inquest has been made yet.

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