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New Zealand Vowed to Listen to Muslims After Christchurch. It’s Failing, They Say.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Ten days after a gunman killed dozens of people at two Christchurch mosques, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised answers.

Her government, she said, would commission an investigation to delve into the concern haunting every New Zealander, but especially the country’s Muslims: Could the terrorist attack have been prevented?

The inquiry, she said, would make a priority of consulting with the Muslim community, a group long overlooked and now desperate for assurances about their safety.

But halfway through what is expected to be an eight-month investigation, members of a panel of influential Muslims appointed to advise the inquiry say they have been sidelined by the officials conducting it.

They describe a process flawed from the start. The parameters of the inquiry were set by government officials with no input from Muslims. They said they had no way to request that the inquiry look into certain issues, like their treatment by law enforcement agencies in the years before the attacks.

Several of the Muslims on the panel say the inquiry has prioritized evidence from government officials who they say were negligent in the lead-up to the massacre over the testimony of Muslims. The investigators were more than two months into their work, they said, before they convened the first meeting of a 35-member Muslim advisory panel. And participants said that meeting was virtually devoid of substance and left them unsure of what they were expected to contribute.

These perceived missteps, combined with a rush to finish the inquiry by year’s end in an almost entirely closed-door process, has led Muslims on the panel and in the broader community to fear that they will be denied justice and that the government will sidestep full scrutiny.

“Not only has this man attacked and killed our people, it’s also making us feel like we have no power, no control over the outcome of this process,” said Sahra Ahmed, a member of the advisory panel who is a nurse in Christchurch.

ImageCreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

Shayma’a Arif, a refugee advocate and lawyer who is also a member of the panel, described a deficit of trust. “It’s not very transparent, and people don’t know if they can trust the system, they don’t know if they can trust the process,” she said. “It seems like a very whitewashed and tokenistic process.”

The 46,000 Muslims in New Zealand make up just 1 percent of the population, and they have not traditionally been represented in politics or public life. That has made the inquiry even more critical — and more challenging to conduct, as officials try to work out how to communicate with people who speak more than half a dozen languages and come from dozens of cultural backgrounds.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the inquiry, Sia Aston, said the inquiry, known as a royal commission, wanted to hear from any member of the Muslim community who wished to offer input. She welcomed “victims and their families to meet with us on their terms at a place and time that is convenient to them.”

The Muslim advisory group, she had said earlier, was just one way the commission was consulting with the community. Memos released by the commission show that the inquiry has heard from few Muslim organizations. The list of those interviewed is otherwise made up almost entirely of government officials, security figures and academics.

Sondos Qur’aan, a law student who is a member of the advisory group, said the commission should have come to the broader Muslim community first.

“They keep telling us that this is for us, but I haven’t seen that yet,” she said. “We’re doing this as people who went through this, who know what’s going on, and who have questions that need to be asked of the government agencies.”

Ms. Qur’aan was among the 35 Muslims who gathered for the first time on a winter morning in late July at a traditional meeting house in Christchurch associated with the Maori Indigenous group. After a customary Maori welcome, the Muslim panelists asked the officials convening the meeting to leave the room so they could talk in private.

After the officials returned, the Muslim participants insisted that they had many questions about what role they were being asked to play in the inquiry. But several Muslims who attended said they were not given any information not already in the public domain, and left knowing no more about the process than when they arrived. Their questions about the purpose of their work have still not been adequately answered, they said.

ImageCreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

“I’ve been to neighborhood meetings that were better organized,” said Ms. Ahmed, the nurse. “The day was a shambles.”

By that time, the inquiry’s framework — known as the terms of reference — had long been set, including the exclusion of any examination of the police response to the attacks. The commission had already heard evidence, members of the Muslim group have since pointed out, from more men named Paul (four) than from Muslim organizations (two).

“The only people spoken to about the terms of reference were the government agencies responsible for the neglect that led to March the 15th,” Ms. Qur’aan said. That neglect, some critics say, includes apparent inaction on the part of intelligence agencies after Muslim leaders warned of a rising tide of white supremacist threats.

One issue raised at the first meeting was the date for next gathering. It was scheduled for August, when 200 people associated with the Christchurch attacks would be on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at the invitation of King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The officials appeared not to have been aware of the conflict, a lapse that the Muslim panelists said reflected a broader cultural ignorance by the commission.

Only one member of the advisory group is a relative of a Christchurch victim, and that person would have been unable to attend the meeting. So the panel pushed the commission’s staff to change the date, said Ms. Arif, the lawyer.

The second meeting will now be held on Tuesday, three months before the commission is scheduled to deliver its report on Dec. 10.

Ms. Ahmed, Ms. Qur’aan and Ms. Arif all said that despite their misgivings, they wanted to remain in the group because they felt a responsibility to other Muslims. But a fourth member, Guled Mire, a refugee advocate, was so dismayed by the first meeting that he resigned.

ImageCreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

“This isn’t an inquiry that was created to seek justice for us,” Mr. Mire said. The fact that the terms of the investigation were not considered for public consultation, as they had been in past inquiries, was particularly galling, he added.

The perceived secrecy of the royal commission’s inner workings has been a point of particular complaint among some in the Muslim community.

Some information has to be kept secret for matters of national security and to ensure a fair trial for the suspect in the massacre. Gregor Allan, a Wellington lawyer who has worked on previous royal commissions, said the inquiry could suppress some details of its findings and release them later, once the court case concludes.

But the court proceedings are nine or 10 months away, and New Zealand law requires suspects to be considered innocent until a trial occurs.

Because the commission will be reticent to say anything that could prejudice a fair trial, Mr. Allan said it was “challenging” to know what information the December report could even include.

Many Muslims say they are especially disappointed that the police response to the shootings was not included in the scope of the commission’s investigation.

Questions about officers’ actions — including about a timeline of events laid out by the police detailing a rapid response, as well as concerns that emergency workers were not allowed to tend to badly injured victims quickly enough — remain major points of discussion at the Christchurch mosques.

The police said in a statement that their response to the attacks would be assessed in a separate, independent investigation.

Ms. Qur’aan, a member of Al Noor mosque, the first the gunman struck, said the authorities were not taking advice from Muslims, even though they did not have the skills needed to deal with the issues on their own.

“It feels like they’re not 100 percent sure what they’ve gotten themselves into and they don’t really know how to move forward,” she said. “But if something like this is not receiving the justice and respect that it deserves, what kind of processes can we have faith in?”


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