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Court of Appeal rejects sovereign citizen appeal by Auckland instructor Chris Wiremu, who hit students

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A South Auckland primary school volunteer who admitted to whacking eight students with a stick during an overly zealous lesson about Māori weaponry – then tried to withdraw his guilty pleas, claiming the court system had no jurisdiction over him. He has now lost another round in a nearly five-year legal battle to void the charges. Craig Kapitan reports on the unusual case.

Chris Karaitiana Wiremu pleaded guilty in February 2021 to eight counts of assault on a child.

Wiremu was a respected instructor of the Māori martial art known as mau rākau. It appears from multiple court documents obtained by the Herald that he would have in all likelihood received a discharge without conviction and perhaps permanent name suppression for the charges had it not been for one thing: his refusal to co-operate with court officials based on an indigenous spin on the controversial “sovereign citizen” defence popularised by conspiracy theorists in US courtrooms.

“I fully understand that there’s these laws that are presented in front of me, however, where are those laws that are consistent with my ancestors?” he asked through a te reo Māori interpreter during his September 2022 sentencing hearing, during which he represented himself after firing two consecutive lawyers. “I will never fully agree with the conviction that is the case before me today. Never.”

At the end of the day, he told the judge, “I will continue to be treated as a slave under your laws”.

The judge ordered six months’ supervision.

Court documents state Wiremu was teaching a mau rākau lesson to a group of primary students in October 2019 when he pulled aside 12 children – eight of whom became the complainants – and put them in a line.

“You went down the line one-by-one, swinging a long piece of wood similar to a broom handle, that was directed at the legs of the children and you demanded they jump,” Manukau District Court Judge Jane Forrest noted during the sentencing hearing. “Several of the children were hit in the leg as a result. You also poked the wood into the chest of some of the children.

“This left several of the children in pain and visibly upset. Four of the children had bruising to their legs that was visible. Six of the children reported they cried.”

During the sentencing, the judge applied discounts for his early – albeit eventually lamented – guilty pleas and for his “mana”, which she explained in court terms meant previous good character. The judge sought Wiremu’s opinion about whether he would prefer the end sentence to be supervision or community work, noting that he’s active in the community anyway.

She settled on supervision, noting that “it appears that you’re not willing to engage in this process at that level because of the extent to which you feel that the laws don’t recognise the importance of taonga and other matters”.

“I regard this as a relatively lenient sentence and one which I hope conveys some of my respect for the work that you have done over the years,” the judge added.

Earlier, the judge had emphasised to Wiremu that she would allow him to make a last-minute argument for a discharge without conviction even though the deadline for such a court filing had passed a month earlier.

“It is clear to me that you have spent 20 years doing significant work with mau rākau,” she explained. “You’ve worked in schools and on marae. You’ve also been a caregiver for the Open Home Foundation [youth outreach programme]. And that is why I’ve invited you to make submissions to me on what the consequences of a conviction might be – because I have a concern that convictions of this nature might impede you doing some of that work in the future.”

But Wiremu refused to engage, insisting through his translator that the court had no jurisdiction over him.

“Right from the beginning it has been just really frustrating process. I felt wronged by at the beginning and it’s just continued to feel that way,” he said. “How come there isn’t any law that recognises the importance and the value of these taonga that have been descended down from our ancestors? Where is it? Where are they?

Mau rākau instructor Chris Wiremu was sentenced in Manukau District Court in September 2022 after a year and a half of delays. He pleaded guilty to hitting eight primary school students but has for years battled to rescind the admission of guilt. Photo / Alex Burton
Mau rākau instructor Chris Wiremu was sentenced in Manukau District Court in September 2022 after a year and a half of delays. He pleaded guilty to hitting eight primary school students but has for years battled to rescind the admission of guilt. Photo / Alex Burton

“… I will continue to still stand in my self-sovereignty and determination. … I will continue to stand on my mana. I will continue to stand in all who I am regardless of the outcome of the sentencing. I will continue to be who I am as an ambassador, or rangatiratanga, for those that continue to uphold the mana and continue to share those taonga tuku iho [cultural heritage] to our people.”

Wiremu added that he is not a bad person. He blamed the school, which cannot be named for legal reasons, for not supporting him when the parents of the children complained.

“I know how to take care of children,” he said. “When the school approached me I was doing this on a voluntary basis. I was merely there to help these children and guide these children so that they wouldn’t fall into being youth at risk and doing ram raids and doing all those sorts of things. I was there to help these youths.”

He spent several terms at the school with the children with no other incidents until the one that led to criminal charge, he said, adding: “There was a lot of time spent building rapport and throughout that time [and] never, ever was there any concern of me being bad person and hurting these children.”

The judge agreed that his mau rākau work had been “highly commendable”.

“I very much hope that this is something that you will be able to continue,” she said.

Wiremu’s road to sentencing and appeal has been a long one.

His first sentencing hearing in August 2021 was reset after he failed to appear, and a hearing that followed days later was reset because a te reo Māori interpreter was not on hand. At other hearings, he complained the interpreter provided didn’t speak the same dialect as him and so might not have been up to the task of relaying the nuances of what he was trying to convey. Lengthy delays caused by the Covid-19 Delta variant outbreak followed, but he was up for sentencing again in March 2022.

That hearing was derailed after he handed the judge a large pile of documents titled “counterclaim” and “affidavit of truth” challenging the jurisdiction and seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. During a follow-up hearing three months later, Wiremu argued his Tūhoe and Ngāti Ranginui heritage meant he is not bound by post-colonial law.

“He states he and his people have lived here on the whenua [land] from time immemorial,” the judge overseeing that hearing noted in his decision. “He submits the jurisdiction of this court does not apply to him. He also submits that since the dissolution of Parliament in 2002, legislation can be viewed as nothing more than corporate policy.”

But the law applies to all people present in New Zealand, the judge ruled. He ordered what would be the final sentencing date, to take place more than a year and a half after Wiremu first pleaded guilty.

Representing himself again in March as he argued before a three-judge Court of Appeal panel, Wiremu doubled down on lack of jurisdiction arguments that were unsuccessful in the district court.

“This argument was advanced on a combination of the ‘sovereign citizen’ theory and the proposition that, through his whakapapa, he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts,” appellate Justice Patricia Courtney explained in the recently released decision, which was authored alongside justices Rachel Dunningham and Simon Moore.

“Mr Wiremu’s second ground of appeal was that whether his actions were right or wrong was a question of perception and, based on his perception and world view, he did nothing wrong and/or the school has at least some responsibility.”

Although considered fringe, the sovereign citizen movement has continued to see its ranks swell in recent years due in part to backlash against Covid-19 measures and the growth of the QAnon conspiracy movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a US-based civil rights advocacy group that researches and tracks extremist organisations.

The movement dates back to 1971, founded by anti-government racists in the United States, according to the law centre. Over the past 50 years, the white supremacist emphasis has fallen away but mistrust in the Government remains a central tenant, the organisation reports.

“While the movement is plagued with rivalries, infighting, and conspiracies that often lead to the disbanding and re-creation of groups, unprecedented growth in this movement is expected to continue,” the law centre reports. “Growing online instructional methods for becoming sovereign citizens have created a groundswell of adherents from a variety of communities and backgrounds.”

Followers are known for abusing the court system with what the advocacy groups terms “paper terrorism” – gumming up the system with voluminous, often indecipherable court filings. A core belief of the US groups is that the Government secretly swapped the established legal system for admiralty law and that there is a difference between the “corporate shell identity” of a person – noted by the all-capital letters on many legal documents, including often court charges – and the “flesh-and-blood” person.

“Mr Wiremu advanced a ‘dual persona’ argument, seeking to distinguish between the ‘living man’ before the Court and the legal entity ‘the PERSON CHRIS KARAITIANA WIREMU’,” the Court of Appeal noted. “He submitted that the ‘living man’ did not enter the guilty pleas and the Crown was required, but had failed, to prove jurisdiction over the legal entity. Mr Wiremu also holds a view that, as a descendant of his ancestors, he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the New Zealand laws of Parliament, nor of the Courts.”

But the justices also noted that the Court of Appeal has “consistently rejected” both sorts of arguments.

“No person within New Zealand is able to dissociate themselves from their ‘legal persona’ so as to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the courts,” the appellate panel found. “No miscarriage of justice occurred.”

Given the number of victims and the visible bruising on some of them, the offending had been moderately serious, the panel concluded.

“There could be no complaint that the sentence was excessive,” the court found. “We consider that the sentence of six months’ supervision was a lenient one.”

Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.



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