Convicted trout poacher: NZ justice system 'racist'

  • 29/05/2016
Convicted trout poacher: NZ justice system 'racist'

Thomas Tawha, the man jailed for poaching trout alongside his cousin David Leef, says the justice system is prejudiced against Māori.

This follows Ara Adams-Tamatea's Facebook post, pointing out the difference in sentencing between a group of white men, and Leef, that gained huge traction online last week.

It read: "Both parties broke the law, and both parties were sorry. One party committed burglaries to the tune of $80k for fun while the other stole 10 fish to feed his family. Both crimes in the eyes of the law and I'm not disputing that. One gets to "serve time" at home with their family while the other has to serve jail time and leave his family. Take a wild guess who has to go to jail for stealing 10 fish. Not 80,000 fish or $80,000 worth of fish. 10 fish VS $80k of private property.[sic]"

The post gained more than 23 000 likes and more than 8000 shares.

Leef and Mr Tawha were caught taking spawning trout from a highly-valued spawning stream near Lake Rotoiti.

Leef, 37, was sentenced to four months in prison for poaching as many as 60 trout, and Tawha sentenced to 12 months in prison for poaching 39 trout on two occasions from the lake.

Leef failed to appear for sentencing and a warrant was subsequently issued for his arrest.

Mr Tawha, 42, a self-described kaumatua of Whakatane, was sentenced in Rotorua District Court today by Judge Jim Weir.

Leef lives in a broken-down bus on his mother's Titiko property. He is the solo parent of eight children.

His whanau say he is unemployed but a "motivated and experienced provider of kai which he sources from the sea, rivers and bush".

Convicted trout poacher: NZ justice system 'racist'

Leef is currently in prison and Tawha now lives in Otahuhu, south Auckland with his partner.

Mr Tawha told The Hui he felt hurt and "ripped off".

"To my recollection it was only 39 trout, and as far as I'm concerned that's not enough to feed a [family], let alone ourselves.

"There's millions and millions in that river, in those lakes so taking that small amount, I don't see what's wrong with it."

Mr Tawha says he was collecting kai to feed the marae and themselves after they received a phone call that one of their family members had passed away.

He says he won't apologise for taking the trout, and says "times are hard these days, especially for us as Māori".

"When you see a Māori boy go into court, then you know he's going to go to jail. When you see a pakeha, and no disrespect, when you see a pakeha go into court, slap on the hand," he told The Hui.

"I've been in jail quite a few times, but this one really hit it on the head because it was something I believe in, that was right.

"Quite a few whanau have cried because of the things I have done which I have taken full responsibility of but to see my family in that courthouse that time...that really hurt."

He says his cousin Leef is "missing out on his kids" whilst he is serving time in jail.

"It's so sad how the system can treat us like this, they may think it's wrong, I don' care."

Leef failed to appear in court on two occasions and refused to take part in a presentencing report, which would have assessed his suitability for a home detention.

According to sentencing notes, Leef has a long history of offending going back to 1995 and a long history of non-compliance with various court orders.

But his sister Marion Leef says he wasn't aware the trout were spawning at the time.

Convicted trout poacher: NZ justice system 'racist'

"If you think about it he's done nothing wrong. He only did what he always usually does, which is gather food and that's part of our customary practices.

"I think that's just total injustice, what they've done to him, because he's just practiced what he's been taught since he's been growing up."

She says his children are "really struggling now" without him.

"Anytime there's a tangi, a birthday on our marae, we have six marae around here, they're very busy, very active, so he's always at the beach, or he's always hunting, or he's gathering something.

"But the beach is his main one. He's always either fishing, diving, he's just one of those kinds of dads."

Convicted trout poacher: NZ justice system 'racist'

Fish & Game told the Hui online backlash over Mr Tawha and Leef's case had left staff concerned for their safety.

They said its parliament's job to set law and penalties.

"Trout angling earns Taupo and Rotorua around $50 million a year. People's livelihoods depend on trout. Fish & Game has a very good relationship with Rotorua iwi and works closely with them.

These iwi were outraged that someone from outside their rohe came in and took trout without asking," they said in a statement.

"The number of trout taken by poachers is often far more than they can easily carry and is not just taking a single fish for the family.

"The sentence imposed on the offenders reflects the seriousness of the crime and their previous convictions."