Controversial Destiny Church founder Brian Tamaki made his first appearance at Auckland District Court, pleading not guilty to charges he violated Auckland’s Covid-19 restrictions by attending and helping to organise a large-scale lockdown protest.
It has been estimated between 1000 and 2000 people gathered at Auckland Domain on October 2 – despite pleas from Government and city officials to call it off and avoid what was feared could become a super-spreader event.
Tamaki, 63, has vowed to fight the criminal charges.
In a statement issued after his court appearance he said he had pleaded not guilty and planned to challenge what he described as “excessive state control”.
“I believe the judge agreed that we have a right to protest as long as we do not breach current Covid-19 alert level restrictions,” he said.
“This is the first step in the much bigger battle at hand here. We are about to make this a landmark case for New Zealand.”
Also appearing before Judge Brooke Gibson on Tuesday was Destiny Church member Paul Craig Thompson.
The Papatoetoe resident, 57, is listed as an official with the Freedoms and Rights Coalition, which has taken credit for the protest.
If convicted of breaching the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, both men could face up to six months’ prison and a $4000 fine.
Both men were remanded on bail. The judge ordered them, as part of their bail requirements, not to attend or organise any protests in breach of Covid-19 requirements and not to use the internet to encourage non-compliance. Due to Bail Act suppression rules, most of the roughly 30-minute hearing cannot be reported.
Under alert level 3 restrictions at the time of the event, most non-essential gatherings that involved the mixing of bubbles were banned. Weddings and funerals were notable exceptions to the rule, but for groups of no more than 10 people.
Level 3 lockdown rules have since eased in Auckland to allow for two families at a time to mix bubbles for outdoor meet-ups, but with continued social distancing and no more than 10 people per gathering.
Tamaki met with police before the protest. A police spokesperson said after the event took place that they were disappointed by the large numbers, and that “organisers did not follow through on undertakings they had given police about how the event would be managed”.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had characterised the event as a “slap in the face” for all Aucklanders who had been following lockdown rules, while Auckland Mayor Phil Goff characterised the gathering as a “kick in the guts”.
Over 150,000 people signed an online petition calling for the church leader to be charged.
Tamaki was represented during the brief court appearance by Ron Mansfield, QC. Thompson was represented by lawyer Sue Grey, a former New Zealand Outdoors Party candidate and prominent anti-vaccination advocate.
There isn’t expected to be another hearing for the charges until January, and both defendants have been excused from attending.
Mansfield told the Herald after the hearing that his client – who he described as pro-choice, not anti-vax – doesn’t believe he ever violated the law. Tamaki also doesn’t accept that the gathering itself was unlawful, he said.
“Mr Tamaki doesn’t accept that he’s encouraged non-compliance,” he said, explaining that masks and hand sanitiser were handed out at Auckland Domain.
Attendees were encouraged at least seven times during the protest to remain socially distanced and in their bubbles, Mansfield said, adding that his client wore a mask except when on the podium, addressing the crowd.
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