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Wed, 14 Aug 2019 13:02 - Updated Wed, 14 Aug 2019 13:02

Criticism mounts of New Zealand mosque shooting response

CHRISTCHURCH - 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.

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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,REUTERS.

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