By Charlotte Greenfield
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (Reuters) - After a lone gunman killed 51 mosque worshippers in March, New Zealand's outpouring of collective grief and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's heartfelt support for the Muslim community won praise around the world.
But months after the attacks in two Christchurch mosques, criticism is mounting over the aftermath, including the prolonged legal process and the handling of a powerful government inquiry.
New Zealand is no stranger to natural disasters, but the unprecedented scale of violence targeting a minority has strained institutions designed to provide answers and deliver justice.
New Zealand is also less experienced in dealing with cultural needs of Muslims, who make up only about 1% of the population.
That has led to cultural blind spots, including scheduling hearings during important religious periods and failing to engage with Muslims in an appropriate way, members of the Muslim community, experts and advocates say.
"What's being done to manage the expectations of victims and how do they actually feel included and ensure they are not re-traumatized through it and re-victimized through that process?," said Pakeeza Rasheed, a lawyer and chairperson of New Zealand Muslim women's organization, the Khadija Leadership Network.
From the beginning, delays and confusion confirming the identities of victims and releasing bodies upset relatives who were unable to bury their loved ones as soon as possible, as is customary in Islam.
Soon after the attack, many Muslims questioned whether security services took the risk of white supremacist violence seriously enough, and whether authorities were overly focused on the danger of Islamic extremism.
Ardern in May announced a wide-ranging inquiry, known as a Royal Commission, seeking answers to such questions.
But at least six human rights advocates and local Muslims contacted by Reuters have become skeptical of the process.
New Zealand's Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt called on the Royal Commission to improve inclusion of the Muslim community and said the Commission's public suppression of information from various government agencies was too broad.
Former race relations commissioner Joris De Bres declined to give evidence to the commission last month, saying he too had concerns over undue secrecy and Muslims being sidelined.
"I…must regretfully decline to participate in the process until I am confident that it is transparent, places the families of the victims of the March 15 massacre, and their communities and organizations at its center and that they have the ability…to question and challenge the information provided by government agencies under investigation," De Bres told the Commission in a letter he provided to Reuters.
The Commission said it needed to ask government agencies direct and probing questions and was working on the assumption that information gathered would be made public later, wherever possible.
Guled Mire, a Wellington-based Muslim community advocate, initially accepted an invitation to join a Muslim community reference group set up by the Commission, but pulled out in July after its first meeting, saying Muslims were not being listened to.
"They're perpetuating the same attitudes and behaviors that have led to March 15, essentially ignoring our lived experiences, not valuing what we have to say, really not willing to engage with us on our terms," Mire said. "The commission has instead undertaken what I would describe as tokenistic forms of engagement.”
Pakeeza Rasheed was also invited to join group but said she did not feel comfortable participating after the Commission did not respond to a number of questions she had about what the process would entail.
The Commission said the Muslim community reference group was only one way it was engaging with Muslim communities.
"We also continue to meet personally with groups and individuals and we’re in contact with many more by phone, email and whatever medium people prefer," a spokeswoman said in an emailed response to Reuters.
"We understand there may be some members of the Muslim Community Reference Group who may decide the process is not for them and that’s ok."
Others say they have been pleased with their interactions with the Commission.
Ambreen Naeem, whose husband Naeem and eldest son Talhawere killed at the Al Noor Mosque, contacted the commission by email and was visited by the head commissioner in July.
Ambreen said she had welcomed the chance to raise questions, including about how seriously threats of violence against Muslims were taken in the lead up to the attacks.
"Everyone makes mistakes, if they made mistakes we will understand, but we need to know," said Ambreen, who is trying to rebuild a life for herself and two surviving sons.
LONG COURT PROCESS
For Ambreen and others, the long and unfamiliar court process has been a source of stress and trauma.
In June, relatives and victims were told the trial of suspected white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, who has pleaded not guilty to 92 murder, attempted murder and terrorism charges, would not take place until May next year, coinciding with the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.
"I don’t know why they drag it that long," said Abdul Aziz, who fought the attacker with a credit card machine at Linwood Mosque. "Each time I come out of the court, what happens? All the memories come back."
Muslim Association of Canterbury President Shagaf Khan said they had asked authorities to change the trial date so it does not coincide with Ramadan.
A court official said the court was trying to have the case brought to trial as soon as possible but was open to reviewing the date.
A lawyer for Tarrant, Jonathan Hudson, said: "Our primary concern is ensuring that Mr Tarrant receives the fair trial that he is entitled to.”
A third preliminary High Court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Two earlier High Court hearings have been set on Fridays, the holiest day in the Islamic week, and the day the attacks happened.
The Ministry of Justice said it had received initial feedback gathered from victims at an earlier court hearing by a cultural adviser it had engaged and was “open to discussion about how we can do things better to support the victims and their families through the court process".
The Ministry said it had also arranged to have private rooms and a prayer room available to victims at the court.
While the court process would inevitably be painful for those involved, steps could be taken to mitigate trauma such as avoiding religiously important times for proceedings, acknowledging victims, and providing culturally informed psychological support processes for those attending, said Tayyab Rashid, a Pakistani-Canadian psychologist who ran support sessions at Al Noor Mosque.
"I think the court or legal system can find ways to support them because this is not the typical case, it is an atypical scenario and for atypical scenarios, you need atypical solutions."
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)