Guilty pleas over Key assault

GUILTY PLEAS: John Junior Popata, (pictured) and Wikatana Popata withdrew earlier not guilty pleas to a charge of assaulting Mr Key outside Te Tii Marae at Waitangi.
GUILTY PLEAS: John Junior Popata, (pictured) and Wikatana Popata withdrew earlier not guilty pleas to a charge of assaulting Mr Key outside Te Tii Marae at Waitangi.

Two Far North brothers had assaulted Prime Minister John Key outside a marae in February "in a rush of blood" because of their concern over land being confiscated from Maori, Kaikohe District Court was told today.

But Judge John McDonald told John Junior Popata, 33, a researcher, and Wikatana Popata, 19, an interviewer, that violence in any form was not an acceptable way of protest under New Zealand law and it was serious because of who they had targeted.

The brothers today withdrew earlier not guilty pleas to a charge of assaulting Mr Key outside Te Tii Marae at Waitangi. They were convicted and each sentenced to 100 hours' community work.

Judge McDonald rejected an invitation by the brothers' lawyers to discharge both without conviction.

Extensive submissions were made by their lawyers, Annette Sykes and Jason Pou, five Far North kaumatua – several of whom are related to the brothers – and Maori Party MP Hone Harawira.

Prosecuting sergeant Russell Price told the court Mr Key was being greeted outside Te Tii Marae on February 5 when he was grabbed by the front of his suit jacket by John Junior Popata.

He had pulled at Mr Key's jacket and yelled that he was not to go on to the marae.

Security men and iwi liaison officers broke Popata's hold on the prime minister's jacket and led him away.

Mr Price said Mr Key was not injured but did appear to be shaken. He entered the marae a few moments later.

John Junior Popata told police he had wanted to talk to Mr Key about Maori issues and about Maori land being taken.

Wikatana Popata had approached the prime minister from behind, pulling his jacket back, Mr Price said. Again, security officers intervened and broke his hold.

He told police he had wanted to give Mr Key "a wake up call" and that he was from Ngati Kahu whose land had been taken in the Far North.

One kaumatua, Whare Mehana, said the brothers were participants in the ongoing struggle for recognition under the Treaty of Waitangi.

The transgression was seen as such in statutory law but was not regarded as a transgression in Maori lore, he said.

Hone Harawira said the pair were involved in kapa haka, broadcasting, marae, hapu land issues and tribal research.

They had stayed away from drugs and alcohol. "They're doing the sort of things that other young people should be doing," Mr Harawira said.

"I know more than most what it's like to act with a rush of blood to the head. We're proud to carry the weight of what they might have done.

"We don't do this in every court case. This one is a special case," the MP told the court.

In a statement, partly in Maori, read to the court, Wikatana Popata extended apologies for their actions to people "throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand" and to "John Key in particular".

He also asked when they would get an apology for the confiscation of their lands, harbours and foreshores. "We will continue to struggle for ever and ever," he said.

John Junior Popata supported his younger brother's statement.

Ms Sykes said media comment earlier on the day of the incident that the Maori movement for change seemed to have died away, and that peace was reigning, was heard by the brothers as they travelled to Waitangi and it concerned them.

They were concerned about the confiscation of land, foreshore and seabed, she said.

Their conduct against the prime minister was at the lower end of the scale and they had both spent five days remanded in custody at Ngawha prison, near Kaikohe, immediately after their first appearance in court following the incident.

Both men had apologised to Te Tii Marae, many of whose people were upset at what had happened. They had apologised to Ngapuhi and the people of New Zealand, Ms Sykes said.

She hoped Mr Key would also accept the apology now being offered.

Police said an assault on the prime minister needed a deterrent sentence.

Mr Key had been "vulnerable" because of the welcoming atmosphere he had been expecting and because his previously broken right arm was still in a sling.

Judge McDonald accepted that what the Popatas did was done in "a rush of blood" and that there was no evidence the assault on Mr Key was planned in advance.

As he left the court after sentencing, Wikatana Popata said only that they would "fight on for ever and ever".