Charlotte Bellis' lawyer calls for Chris Hipkins to clarify 'misleading' statement in open letter

A lawyer representing Charlotte Bellis has written an open letter calling for COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins to clarify what he says is a "misleading" statement made on Monday about the Kiwi journalist's MIQ case. 

Bellis, a pregnant former Al Jazeera journalist, has been fighting to return from Afghanistan to New Zealand after an emergency application she submitted for managed isolation was rejected. Her case attracted intense publicity globally and on Tuesday she was offered a MIQ spot, allowing her to return to New Zealand in March.

However, Bellis's lawyer, Tudor Clee, has taken issue with a public statement by Hipkins on Monday, labelling his assertion that the emergency allocation criteria includes "a requirement to travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days" misleading. 

In an open letter to Hipkins, Clee says statements from Chris Bunny, the deputy chief executive of MIQ, and Crown Law as well as the rejection letter sent to Bellis suggest it is not a requirement.

The rejection email to Bellis on January 24 states that her application had been deactivated as "you do not intend to arrive within the next 14 days". However, it also says "to be considered outside of the 14 days, please provide evidence to support your reasoning".

Clee writes that "this makes it explicitly clear that applying within 14 days is not a requirement" and that Bellis had provided supporting evidence.

The lawyer also points to a statement to Newshub on Monday, when Bunny said "applications may be considered outside of the 14-day window", though this was the "exception, not the rule". 

Bunny had previously commented that the date Bellis had requested to return to New Zealand (February 27) was not within "the 14-day window required for an emergency allocation", noting that the criteria requires travel to be time critical.

Clee also notes a submission made by Crown Law in the High Court in an unrelated case that "if an applicant is applying to travel beyond the 14-day period, it is for them to establish that 'special circumstances' apply".

Bellis' lawyer states that Hipkins' statement about the 14-day rule "is therefore misleading". 

"It implies Ms. Bellis filed her application incorrectly. This is patently false."

Clee also writes that Hipkins has himself accepted that Bellis' situation fits the criteria of "special circumstances". In his Monday statement, Hipkins said he wanted to be clear that "there is a place in MIQ for people with special circumstances like Ms Bellis'".

The lawyer says Hipkins' comments may have wider ramifications than just for Bellis' case. 

"Minister Hipkins’ misrepresentation poses danger to other applicants for Emergency Allocations. They may be in situations that require an application outside of 14 days but will incorrectly believe they cannot apply. This is callous, and risks causing harm to already vulnerable people. 

"I seek written and verbal statements from the Minister clarifying that it is permissible to apply outside 14 days if evidence of special circumstances is provided, and that Ms. Bellis correctly did so."

Hipkins has also previously been accused of breaching Bellis' privacy by including personal details in the statement that the journalist says he did not have permission to share. 

The minister on Wednesday said he didn't want to comment "while [Bellis] is considering her potential legal options". Newshub contacted his office on Thursday to confirm whether he has received the letter and to ask if he has any response, but was told any further communcation will be directly with Bellis and Clee. 

Bellis, whose reporting on the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan last August received international attention, discovered late last year that she was pregnant in Qatar, where she was based but which does not allow sex outside of marriage. 

In November, with the Government having announced that New Zealand would allow self-isolation for citizens returning from the end of February, Bellis booked flights for her and her Belgian partner to return for the birth in May.

The pair spent time in Belgium, but Bellis could only stay temporarily as Kiwis can only reside three of every six months in the Schengen zone, and she had eaten into that by the time January came about. 

With New Zealand still operating MIQ - which only has a limited number of rooms for returning Kiwis - Bellis says she had to return to Afghanistan, where she and her partner have a visa. 

However, when Omicron disrupted the Government's plan to reopen, pushing out the plan for self-isolation, Bellis applied for an emergency allocation voucher on the basis that she would need time-critical medical treatment. 

The date she requested - February 27 - was not within the 14-day window. Bellis received a response inviting her to reapply within the 14-day window, and to contact MIQ if she intended to change her flights. But Bellis said flights are difficult to get out of Kabul and she had already provided 59 documents explaining why she needed an emergency spot. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson on Tuesday announced that Bellis had been offered an emergency MIQ spot. He said on Wednesday that MIQ served a "really important role for us and it's one where unfortunately difficult decisions have to get made all the time".

"I do encourage applicants to keep working with officials to be responding, providing the information. I know it can appear bureaucratic and frustrating, but we have to have a system that allows the officials to make very, very difficult tradeoffs," he told RNZ.

The Prime Minister will announce on Thursday the Government's new plan to allow Kiwis to return. Newshub understands the Government will stick with its end of February promise to allow Kiwis back from Australia with self-isolation rather than the MIQ. Other New Zealanders around the globe could be able to return shortly after that.