The story of Graham Philip is extremely difficult to tell.
The man who previously told his supporters he was a political prisoner today undertook a resounding about-face, pleading guilty to seven charges of sabotage.
In doing so, the Taupō man made New Zealand legal history, becoming the first person ever to be convicted of sabotage – an offence contained in the Crimes Act that, until November last year, was never required.
His supporters, some of whom had travelled for hours to get to his hearings in vehicles that had “Free Graham Philip” written on them, and who had donated thousands of dollars to his legal fees, were dumbfounded. In earlier letters penned from prison, he told his supporters he would never back down.
The charges related to an attack on critical New Zealand infrastructure, causing over a million dollars worth of damage.
Philip’s end goal of causing mass disruption to the New Zealand populous wasn’t achieved, but it’s impossible to detail just how close he came without breaching a suppression order.
If successful, “the consequences of the damage could have been very grave”, Crown prosecutor Amanda Gordon previously told the High Court.
Short of those details, that’s about as much as we can tell you.
The offending Philip has now accepted he was responsible for remains suppressed under an order issued to ensure the security and defence of New Zealand. By all accounts, the attack was very easy to undertake, sparking fears of copycat actors.
But the secrecy behind the case provided fertile ground for Philip and his family to whip up hysteria among fringe groups. And that they did.
Who is Graham Philip?
Since at least 2003, Graham Philip has resided in either Rotorua or Taupō where he initially worked for a local computer repair shop as a technician. He has at least three adult children.
A photo from the Rotorua Daily Post archive shows Philip on New Year’s Day in 2003 riding a biscuit on Lake Okareka, on a day out with his family.
He is married to Marta Philip – a European woman with a thick accent that has almost become the face of the prosecution, after sharing numerous videos and posts on a Facebook page created to keep Philip’s supporters in the loop with the case.
Why did he commit sabotage?
Philip’s motives aren’t entirely clear, but there are many indications his fringe views on the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response spurred him into action.
Philip was especially active on the fringe social media platforms, where he made hundreds of now-deleted postings spreading Covid-19 misinformation and his desire to cause disruption.
In one instance, Philip erected a public stall on a street in Taupō, asking passersby to debate with him the legitimacy of the Covid-19 virus. He was dressed in a pinstripe shirt and vest, donning a P&O Cruise onboard purchase card.
His reasoning for wanting to attack vital infrastructure is not clear, but his social media account demonstrates a wide-ranging fascination with how he could cause as much disruption as possible.
How did he have so much support?
The prosecution of Philip and the mammoth non-publication order that encapsulates almost all of the offending he committed has provided fertile ground to whip up hysteria among the public.
The Facebook page, started by his wife Marta and another supporter, has been active since Philip was first arrested in December last year.
Videos on the page talk of Philip as a “family man”. In some videos after her husband’s arrest, Marta says she isn’t completely aware of what her husband was alleged to have done.
A campaign, #FreeGrahamPhilip, began to gain momentum within fringe social media groups. He was described as a man arrested and held without charge, who had been denied a trial and denied the right to see his wife (all later proved wrong).
Why is his offending secret?
Put simply, authorities are concerned that Philip’s status and influence within the conspiracy fringes could spur others to undertake similar offending.
The legislative basis for the order, being the protection of the security and/or defence of New Zealand, is almost never utilised in New Zealand’s courts when it comes to suppression, speaking to just how concerned authorities are that this offending could be repeated.
It’s possible that the order may remain in place forever, but that will be discussed at Philip’s sentencing.
Where to from here?
Philip is to be sentenced at the High Court at Hamilton on 1 December, at which point the blanket non-publication order of the details of the offending will be reconsidered.
It will also be an exercise in something completely new for the presiding judge, who will have to sentence on a charge without precedence in New Zealand.
* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.
Story Credit: rnz.co.nz