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NZer in Filipino jail over $4800 debt

Tuesday 19 Mar 2013 10:08 p.m.

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Thanks to everyone who donated. 3rd Degree has been able to raise enough money to secure Vernon Gardiner's release from prison.

3rd Degree will provide you with an update on Vernon's journey home in the coming days.


New Zealander Vernon Gardiner will spend the next two decades behind bars in a Filipino prison unless he can pay a Filipino worker whom he promised work to in Christchurch, which fell over after the 2011 February quakes.

He’s been unable to raise the money, but in an unusual twist the judge in the case is backing Gardiner.

He has spent the past 17 months in a Filipino prison and if help doesn’t come soon he’ll spend another 20 more years behind bars.

The irony is at 66, Gardiner is entitled to a pension which could help him pay back the money he owes.

Judge Lelu Contrerous, tough and feisty, put Gardiner behind bars. Bizarrely she’s become Vernon Gardiner’s greatest champion.

During his prison tenure she’s taken him under her wing - every few weeks he is escorted from the prison to the judge’s chambers where she lends him books from her library.

She has also spent the past five months lobbying like crazy to get him out. 

The only thing she can do and has done is delay his trial for as long as possible. She’s even gone a step further, writing to numerous NZ ministers asking if the government can pay the $4800 he owes.

She has only had one reply, from the Minister of Justice forwarding her concerns to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. She has not heard back from Murray McCully, or Prime Minister John Key.

So what next for Gardiner?

He has no hope of getting himself out of this.

Judge Contreras has done all she can.

The trial cannot be delayed indefinitely and once he’s sentenced he can’t pay his way out.


The Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully refused 3rd Degree's request for an interview, but agreed to respond to written questions.

Here are the questions we asked him:

  • What has the Government done to assist Mr Vernon Gardiner?
  • Beyond trying to contact friends and family – what else has the consulate done for him?
  • Why haven’t consulate officials even visited him in prison?
  • Mr Gardiner has been on two serious hunger strikes and plans to take his own life rather than languish in prison. Does this not compel the government to do more to secure his release?
  • Mr Gardiner only needs NZ$4800 (P160,000) to repay his debt and be freed from prison – why hasn’t the Government paid this debt to ensure the freedom of a New Zealand citizen?
  • Mr Gardiner is entitled to a pension – can’t the Government loan him the money and simply dock his pension on his return to New Zealand?
  • Why did it take our arrival in Virac to cause a sudden flurry of phone calls to Mr Gardiner from the embassy in Manila?
  • Mr Gardiner has already spent 17 months in a Filipino prison. Without the money to repay his debt – he faces 20 years. Is the Government prepared to see him serve 20 years for this small debt rather than intervene?
  • Judge Lelu Contreras has repeatedly appealed to the NZ government to help Mr Gardiner. She has written to the NZ embassy, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Social Development, the Minister of Primary Industries and the Attorney General. Surely – given that it is highly unusual for a judge to intervene like this on behalf of an inmate – the NZ government owes her a considered response? Why hasn’t Judge Contreras received a proper reply from the NZ government?
  • The government of the Philippines uses public funds to try and release its citizens from detention overseas – why won’t the NZ government do the same?
  • Regardless of the Government’s policy about paying the debts of its citizens – why can’t it make an exemption in this case? Given that Mr Gardiner faces a 20 year sentence for giving immigration advice without a license which is which is the equivalent of what someone convicted of murder would face in New Zealand?
Here is his response:

  • "The Government has been providing assistance and advice to Mr Gardiner since 2011 through the Embassy in the Philippines, including approaching family members and a number of friends who have declined to assist him for a variety of reasons."
  • "If Mr Gardiner wants to return to New Zealand the Government will assess his ability to qualify for superannuation or the emergency benefit.  If Mr Gardiner qualifies for Government support, we would be prepared to consider finding a means of ensuring his entitlements are applied to cover the debt"
  • "While the Ministry tries to assist New Zealanders who encounter difficulties overseas, this not include extending loans with taxpayers money."



  • Reporter: Sarah Hall
  • Producer: Natasha Utting
  • Editor:  Toby Longbottom
  • Camera:  George Murahidy
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