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Golriz Ghahraman convicted for shoplifting spree, fined $1860

Craig Kapitan,
Publish Date
Thu, 27 Jun 2024, 12:47pm

Golriz Ghahraman convicted for shoplifting spree, fined $1860

Craig Kapitan,
Publish Date
Thu, 27 Jun 2024, 12:47pm

Her once-promising political career now in tatters, former Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman endured another blow this afternoon as she stood in an Auckland courtroom to be sentenced for shoplifting nearly $9000 worth of retail items from high-end stores.

Judge June Jelas denied the 43-year-old former barrister’s request for a discharge without conviction, decreasing her odds of being allowed to revive her legal career after a seven-year hiatus prompted by her ascension to Parliament.

Ghahraman, who was allowed to sit in the courtroom gallery rather than the dock, lowered her eyes and looked towards a supporter as the decision was announced.

The judge imposed fines totalling $1600 and court costs of $260. Supervision was not imposed.

Former Green MP Golriz Ghahraman appears in the Auckland District Court for sentencing on shoplifting charges. Photo / Michael Craig
Former Green MP Golriz Ghahraman appears in the Auckland District Court for sentencing on shoplifting charges. Photo / Michael Craig

“I accept Ms Ghahraman is deeply regretful for her offending,” Judge Jelas said.

Ghahraman, standing as the final sentence was imposed, gave a bashful smile as the judge said she hoped she would someday utilise her talents again for the community “she has tirelessly endeavoured to serve”.

After quickly announcing that she had denied the discharge without conviction, the judge gave more detail as she explained her decision not to impose a custodial or supervision sentence.

There were “many factors in Ms Ghahraman’s favour”, she said, explaining that the defendant pleaded guilty at her first appearance, she voluntarily paid restitution and she met with Scotties Boutique to make amends even before criminal charges were laid.

“Ms Ghahraman has demonstrated her deep remorse for her offending,” the judge said. “[She] is seeking to make amends.”

The judge described Ghahraman as someone regarded by her peers as a talented and hard-working lawyer “held in especially high regard” by those she has worked with.

The judge also took into account Ghahraman’s personal history, which included the traumatic experience of childhood in a war-torn country, her exposure to “vicarious trauma” while immersing herself in war crimes with the United Nations and the “regular and extreme abuse and threats” she received while in office.

The judge said she was given examples of some of the threats.

“I consider them to be deeply disturbing,” she said.

Jelas noted that Ghahraman had been proactive in addressing “why she offended in the way she did”.

“Good immediate progress has been made and the long-term prognosis is positive,” she said of the defendant’s psychological treatment, noting that Ghahraman has been assessed as a low-risk of re-offending.

While mulling the sentence, the judge said she considered the media attention the case elicited, which she equated to a form of punishment.

Ghahraman had said in court documents that media camped outside her home for three weeks straight when the allegations emerged. However, there is no evidence this occurred.

“This conduct by the media forced her to stay inside her home for a number of days,” the judge said. “She described this as an extraordinarily isolating experience.”

It would not have been dissimilar, the judge opined, to someone confined to their home on electronically monitored bail conditions.

That intense media interest can be combined, the judge said, with other punitive consequences Ghahraman has already faced, including loss of employment, income and adverse effects on her mental health.

Ghahraman left the Auckland District Court immediately after the hearing without giving comment.

Ghahraman speaks about ‘self-sabotage’

Today’s brief hearing follows a longer court appearance on Monday, during which lawyers argued for and against a discharge without conviction. At the end of that hearing, the judge reserved her decision until this afternoon.

Former Green Party of Aotearoa MP Golriz Ghahraman has arrived at Auckland District Court, where she will be sentenced for shoplifting. Photo / Michael Craig
Former Green Party of Aotearoa MP Golriz Ghahraman has arrived at Auckland District Court, where she will be sentenced for shoplifting. Photo / Michael Craig

Ghahraman told TVNZ this afternoon she shoplifted because she wanted to get out of politics.

“The self-sabotage was to get out,” she said.

“If I’d actually sat down and processed the fact that I needed to get out, I would have done things differently and that is my great regret. Like, to have actually caused other people stress and harm, because I couldn’t stop and go, ‘well, actually, if there’s something wrong with you, get help or quit’, which is what I should have done.”

She told TVNZ she didn’t get joy out of the crimes.

“It was just shame, shame, the whole time.”

She said she knew she was heading towards self-destruction.

”What the hell was I doing? I wasn’t unaware that I was doing something bad.”

Ghahraman told TVNZ she had been having intensive therapy and had had support from many, including comedian Mike King and Speaker of the House, Gerry Brownlee.

She’d also been talking to the Green Party about their support for MPs should they find themselves in distress.

Ghahraman said if she was a young brown woman with her background, she wouldn’t get into politics now.

“I think there’s better things to do for our communities. That’s a terrible thing to say ... You know, I didn’t break the glass ceiling. It’s like, the shards are still in my face. I just went up against it, really hard.”

In theory, Ghahraman could have faced up to seven years’ imprisonment for the charges she stole over $7800 worth of clothing during two trips to Scotties Boutique in Ponsonby in the week before Christmas last year.

She also faced a sentence of up to one year’s imprisonment for pilfering $695 worth of clothing from Cre8tiveworx in Wellington last October and up to three months’ imprisonment for filching a $389 cardigan from Standard Issue in Newmarket during the same three-day period when she targeted the Ponsonby store.

But in practice, maximum sentences are rarely if ever imposed - especially for a first-time offender convicted of a non-violent crime. Judge Jelas said at the outset of the Monday that she wasn’t considering a term of imprisonment, which had not been sought by the Crown.

“She has apologised publically and accepted responsibility for the offending,” defence lawyer Annabel Cresswell said at the outset of the Monday hearing, arguing that her client’s embarrassing and thoroughly documented fall from grace was punishment enough.

“She has taken every possible step to ameliorate what has occurred as soon as possible.”

The crimes were not the sort of well-executed heists one might expect from a career criminal, according to descriptions of the incidents outlined in court documents.

There was a reason for that, Cresswell said, describing her client as having been in a mental health crisis spurred by her early childhood in war-torn Iran and the “public vitriol, threats and abuse” she had suffered while in office.

Since her arrest she has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which Cresswell said manifested itself through “loss-reactive shoplifting” - stealing by otherwise law-abiding individuals as an unhealthy way of coping with trauma and loss.

“There was no planet in which she was going to continue and continue and continue [without getting caught],” Cresswell said.

“She knew that this was going to lead to her downfall. She was almost trying to bring this to a climax to say ... ‘Something is very wrong.’”

The defence lawyer recalled that Ghahraman had once told a therapist: “I have a tendency to build a house then burn it down.”

During the Newmarket theft, Ghahraman chatted with the store manager before stuffing the navy blue jumper from the display into a large tote bag as the manager’s attention was diverted, according to the agreed summary of facts for the case. The manager immediately noticed the missing item after Ghahraman, the only customer in the store, left.

At least one of the Scotties Boutique thefts was caught on CCTV, leaving no doubt it had been her intention to steal.

During her second theft from the Ponsonby store, the shop assistant was suspicious and asked to search her bags after following her outside.

Ghahraman refused and told the employee she was mistaken, but an associate returned to the store later that afternoon to give back some of the missing items.

Crown Solicitor Alysha McClintock, who handled the high-profile case personally, agreed the thefts weren’t sophisticated.

But there were “hallmarks of planning and pre-meditation”, she said, arguing against a discharge without conviction.

“This was a spree of offending,” she explained. It’s not a one-off event. It’s not a moment of madness case.”

While a psychological report noted “a possible link” between her offending and mental health, there’s a less “tenuous” explanation, McClintock suggested.

“[It is] simply that she wanted the items that she took,” she said.

“On its face, that explanation, given the nature of the conduct, appears to be the more likely of the two.”

Ghahraman resigned from Parliament on January 16, just less than a week after NZME’s ZB Plus broke the story of the first Scotties Boutique shoplifting allegation. She had given up her portfolio, which included serving as the Green Party’s justice spokesperson, days earlier.

She declined to speak to the media but apologised in a written statement for her “completely out of character” behaviour.

“I am not trying to excuse my actions, but I do want to explain them,” she said.

“The mental health professional I see says my recent behaviour is consistent with recent events giving rise to extreme stress response, and relating to previously unrecognised trauma.”

She added: “People should, rightly, expect the highest standards of behaviour from their elected representatives. I fell short. I’m sorry. It’s not a behaviour I can explain because it’s not rational in any way, and after medical evaluation, I understand I’m not well.”

Former Green MP Golriz Gharahman leaves Auckland District Court in March after pleading guilty to shoplifting charges. Photo / Dean PurcellFormer Green MP Golriz Gharahman leaves Auckland District Court in March after pleading guilty to shoplifting charges. Photo / Dean Purcell 

In her 2020 memoir, Pull No Punches, Ghahraman talked openly about having seen a psychologist for years to deal with anxiety even as her legal and then political careers flourished.

Her political profile was high from the start, noted as New Zealand’s first refugee to be sworn in as an MP when her eighth spot on the party list in 2017 allowed her to eke by with a seat in Parliament after the special votes were tallied.

Profiles often focused on her history as a human rights lawyer, having worked with United Nations war crimes tribunals after obtaining a master’s degree at Oxford University.

But since her return to New Zealand in 2012, she had focused largely on criminal defence work in South Auckland, which she often described as another form of human rights work.

She spent four years on the executive committee of the New Zealand Criminal Bar Association before joining Parliament.

Ghahraman told the Herald in 2017 that she hoped her time as a defence lawyer - helping clients find the rehabilitative resources they needed - would inform the way she approached her new political career.

She explained: “How we treat everyone, including the delinquents, that’s the making of us.”

Today’s decision regarding her discharge without conviction request was high stakes for Ghahraman, who has confirmed in court filings that she may want to reapply through the Law Society for permission to practice law again. Her licence had expired while serving in Parliament, which is standard procedure.

While a conviction wouldn’t outright bar her from applying, it would pose a significant hurdle in being allowed to practice again, Cresswell told the judge. It would also likely prevent her from serving as a human rights lawyer again with the United Nations, she said.

The Crown countered that the Law Society would be tasked with looking at the incident itself when determining if there was a “defect of character” unworthy of a licence - not making a black-or-white decision based solely on a conviction.

If her aspirations for a future law career are derailed, it will be because of her poor choices rather than because of her conviction, McClintock said.

In determining the outcome of the case, the judge should take into account the considerable breach of trust, the prosecutor added.

“A person of her standing and her role has a certain standard expected of them - as a former lawyer and as a member of Parliament,” she said.

Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand. 

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