New Zealand’s First “Terrorism” Case
The US and its English-speaking allies have embarked on a dangerous trend of arresting (or targeting for assassination) political activists on the basis of what they allegedly say or intend or who they associate with, as opposed to actual criminal acts. Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, was targeted with a drone strike on the basis of statements he made in his mosque and on the Internet. His sixteen year old son, who Obama killed with a second drone two weeks later, was a target solely because he was the son of an alleged terrorist.
We are fortunate in New Zealand that we still arrest and try our so-called terrorists, rather than allowing our government to target them with drones. Yet the six year saga culminating in yesterday’s hung jury (on “participation in a criminal group” charges) in the Urewera 4 case suggests New Zealand has learned some bad habits from the Bush and Obama administration. Not only have there been serious violations of the New Zealand Bill of Rights, but it’s clear the New Zealand government, like the US, is using anti-terrorism legislation to harass and intimidate activists engaged in lawful protest.
The Two Taranaki Defendants
The case hits pretty close to home, as two of the defendants, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer, are friends and local activists, as well as founders of Climate Justice Taranaki. All four defendants were found guilty on weapons charges and face sentencing in May. This is despite a New Zealand Supreme Court ruling last year that the police evidence was illegally obtained and couldn’t be used in prosecuting the Arms Act charges.
The Police Terror Raids
On Monday, October 15th 2007, hundreds of New Zealand police terrorized Ruatoki in eastern New Zealand, with dawn raids in which Tuhoe women and children were held at gunpoint for nine hours, while searches were carried out through the entire community. Although the original defendants involved both Maori and environmental activists, there has never been any question that the charges were racially motivated. This comes out loud and clear, both from court testimony and the media coverage. Operation 8 (http://uncensored.co.nz/2011/05/05/operation-8-deep-in-the-forest/), a film released last year, documents the illegal police state tactics involved in the 2007 raid.
Police Evidence Ruled Illegal
Due to lack of evidence, the Solicitor-General (the representative of the Queen) refused to give the police permission to bring terrorism charges. In the end eighteen people were charged with Arms Act violations (possessing illegal and/or unlicensed weapons), with five additionally charged with “participation in a criminal group.” In September 2011 the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the police investigation had been illegal (owing to illegal video and audio surveillance on private land) but was admissible on the more serious charge of “participation in a criminal group.” This ruling resulted in thirteen defendants being discharged from the case. In July 2011, one of the five remaining defendants, Tuhoe Lambert, died from stress-related illness.
Trial by Media
When it came to the actual trial, which began February 13, the prosecution attempted to prove the Urewera 4 were conducting a guerrilla training camp in Urewera National Park. The Crown’s case was based mainly on illegal choppy video surveillance, showing some of the defendants in camouflage outfits and/or holding weapons. Even mainstream commentators have pointed out that the video evidence shows an appalling amateurishness and lack of competence for a supposed paramilitary operation.
The Crown also submitted a massive amount of testimony from undercover agents who followed the defendants around for two years as they visited shops, cafes and petrol stations and made note of the videos they watched and the books they read and the comments they made in Internet chat rooms. The actual purpose of the camp is somewhat unclear. According to one defendant, the goal was to train local Tuhoe to provide security for forestry operations. The only prosecution witnesses to participate in the camps (who were age 14 and 16 at the time) talked about attending on the advice of their personal trainer to get advice on nutrition and healthy exercise.
The main weapon the prosecution used against the defendants was selective leaking of the illegal surveillance evidence to the press, resulting in their virtual conviction by the media long before they went to trial.
The Real Goal: Intimidating Activists
The aspect of the case I find most chilling is that the New Zealand police and security services conducted close (and illegal) surveillance for two years on several dozen known activists, in the hope of concocting a criminal case that would take them off the streets. All this at a total cost to the New Zealand taxpayer of $8 million, to say nothing of the immense personal toll on the defendants. Six years is a long time to have your movements restricted, to say nothing of the stress of long drawn out legal proceedings and having your reputation destroyed by a hostile media fed selective leaks of illegally obtained evidence.
In spying on, harassing and illegally prosecuting these activists, the New Zealand government is violating a fundamental right in a free a democratic society – the right to peaceful dissent and protest. All governments, no matter how enlightened, sometimes get it wrong. Historically the New Zealand government seems to have a particular problem with infringing on Maori rights and ignoring international environmental protection standards.
The Crown still has the option of requesting a new trial on the more serious “participation in a criminal group” charges. Let’s hope they are sufficiently embarrassed by what came out at trial to make the correct call.
(See http://www.3news.co.nz/Urewera-verdict-Tame-Iti-guilty-on-six-firearms-charges/tabid/423/articleID/247385/Default.aspx and http://www.october15thsolidarity.info/legal for additional background on the Urewera 4 case)