Legal Utu in a Colonial Court?
Posted on 21:30, November 6th, 2009 by Pablo
A little over two years ago the so-called ” anti-terrorism” raids were carried out by the Police against activists in Ruatoki, Wellington and Auckland. The media frenzy that immediately followed focused on reports of “paramilitary” training camps, where, according to Helen Clark, “napalm” bombs were being made, weapons training was ongoing and plots were being hatched against a variety of political figures, among them George W. Bush. Police affidavits were leaked to the press that detailed the “evidence” collected by covert means, and profiles of the more flamboyant of the defendants were splashed over the tabloids, radio and television. Almost immediately, multiple charges were laid under the Firearms Act 1983, but a few weeks after the raid the Solicitor General decided against laying charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) because he deemed the TSA to be “unworkable.” This was a blow to the government’s case because much of the surveillance done in the build-up to the raids was authorised under provisions of the TSA. Even so, the government pressed ahead and in the months that followed arrested 3 more people and (a year after the raids) charged five of the original defendants with the additional count of ”participation in a criminal gang” (Tame Iti, Rangi Kemara, Tuhoe Lambert, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer). What all of the defendants have in common is that they are well-known and often outspoken critics of the NZ state, the US and capitalism in general. Beyond that they are a mixture of anarchist, environmental and indigenous sovereignty advocates (and at least one unhinged individual) united by their common disdain of the status quo. For background on the events and immediate response to the raids, see the trilogy I wrote for Scoop in the weeks that followed: here, here, and here.
With no terrorism angle to report on, the media lost interest and the story died. But what has become of the Urewera 18? (2 of the arrested have been discharged without conviction or had charges dismissed). Here I shall provide a brief update and make note of some ironies.
The Urewera 18 are represented by 14 barristers and numerous solicitors, with Rodney Harrison QC (of Zaoui case fame) recognised as lead counsel and Annette Sykes given special status by the Court with respect to the tikanga of Tuhoe and implied license. Proceedings have dragged on for more than two years, and like the Zaoui case, it is likely that they will continue for at least another year (reports are that the first available trial date is in 2011). Given the numbers of defendants and legal counsel involved, this means that the taxpayer bill for the prosecution of the case will dwarf the NZ$2 million spent in the futile attempt to refuse Ahmed Zauoi political refuge. The cost for the defendants, emotional as well as material, is similarly high.
As for the substance of the case against the Urewera 18, let us begin with the charges. Other than the criminal gang accusation and a common charge of possession of restricted weapons (presumably related to incendiary devices), all else fall under the Firearms Act of 1983. After some legal wrangling, the charges have been bundled together as ‘representative’ charges so as to make the number of charges more manageable. In other words, in early depositions each defendant was charged with possession of each gun at each camp, resulting in hundreds of charges. That has now been amended to a single charge for possession at each camp (.i.e. each individual visit to the Ruatoki bush camp resulted in one firearms charge). As an example, when arrested one defendant originally faced 3 charges, then at depositions the number of charges rose to 13, but now has returned to the original 3 charges. Even so, the number of individual charges is in the dozens.
With regard to bail. Remember that in their original statements the Police were opposed to bail for the accused, citing the imminent threat they posed to the community. That has all changed. The most onerous bail conditions have been lifted and travel restrictions relaxed although not completely removed. It is my understanding that Tame Iti will again travel to Europe this summer to perform more Shakespeare (Iti was allowed to travel abroad earlier this year in order to participate in theatrical productions in Europe) and Urs Singer has been allowed to visit his ailing parents in Europe as well (the irony of Tame Iti doing Shakespeare in European theaters–as a sort of cultural ambassador, if you will–while on trial in NZ is not lost on me, but I shall avoid mentioning that in my summation below simply because there are other ironies worth noting. But it does point to how serious a threat to the security of Aotearoa he is considered to be by the government).
Then there is the issue of the means by which the case was constructed, to wit, the human and electronic surveillance and wiretaps used to monitor the accused. The Solicitor General’s decision to not invoke the TSA proved to be problematic for the government’s case, since much of the means by which the activists were tracked and evidence gathered were only allowable under the TSA. With no TSA charges on the menu, the admissibility of the evidence collected under its provisions was open to legal challenge. That soon came.
In August, applications were made by the defense that all search warrants, in-person covert surveillance (conducted by the Police Special Tactics Group) and stationary covert cameras were illegal. By and large, the defendants won that part of the argument. In September the presiding judge declared at least 6 of 9 warrants illegal, specifically declaring illegal all in-person covert surveillance and stationary cameras. The latter was deemed illegal because the police trespassed onto private land in order to install the cameras (it is not currently possible to get a warrant for surveillance cameras on private property in NZ). The Police Special Intelligence Group tried to justify its actions by claiming in retrospect that they sought judicial oversight in doing so (presumably with reference to the TSA). In reality, they knew at the time that they couldn’t get warrants for such activity without the TSA, but did so anyway. Now that evidence is inadmissible. Even so, the government won on excluding text messages, and it remains to be seen whether the defense will challenge that ruling in the Court of Appeal. (A good summary of the decision is available here).
The second stage of this application was heard in September and a decision is still pending. Under Sec 30 of the Evidence Act, in order for evidence to be ruled inadmissable, it must be found to be both illegal and unreasonable. This differs greatly from the US where it follows quite logically that activity which is illegal is by nature unreasonable, but the police in NZ are given a much greater benefit of the doubt on this matter. This is an important distinction, because that means that even if the evidence is deemed to have been illegally obtained, it still can be ruled admissible in a NZ Court if it is deemed “reasonable.” QC Harrison has consequently made submissions about why inclusion of this evidence was unreasonable. The main thrust of his argument is that the police’s trespass was sustained, deliberate and knowing. It happened over a period of nearly a year on land that was clearly private property. The judgement is still pending on this part of the defense motion. Whoever loses is very likely to appeal because the case could well hinge on the disputed evidence.
In the last weeks the defense has making an application for a stay of the proceedings based on pre-trial publicity. In essence, that the case has been so prejudiced that the Urewera 18 cannot get a fair trial. Interestingly, the most recent precedent for such an application was made by the same two lawyers on behalf of the two suspected Mossad agents who
The defendants are next due to appear in court in Auckland in mid-December. For those interested, the hearings are open to the public but those attending should expect increased security measures and the possibility of Crown objections to their presence if it is considered injurious to their case (the Crown has already objected to filming of the hearings for documentary purposes).
So what are the ironies of the case so far? Well, for starters there is the parallel with the Zaoui case. In both instances the government began by throwing out unfounded accusations of “terrorism,” only to see their case for it crumble under legal scrutiny. For all the talk of terrorism, it was the Police Special Tactics Group, not the counter-terrorism component of the NZSAS or the specifically-trained Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG) who conducted the surveillance and led the raids (which indicates that the government did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough to justify use of the forces designated for that role). The money spent on the prosecution and legal defense of both cases is also on a par, if not more in the latter instance.
Another irony is that the arms dealer who (allegedly) supplied information to some of the defendants about how to construct silencers, on how to modify a starter’s pistol into a real weapon, and who allegedly provided instruction on how to convert flare grenade launchers into the real thing, has not been charged with a single offense (reportedly due to his being a Police informant).
For its part, rather than strengthen criminal law to deal with politically-motivated criminal conspiracies in light of the “unworkability” of the TSA (thereby avoiding the authoritarian penchant to create a different category of “political” crimes labeled as “terroristic”), National has re-introduced a Search and Surveillance Bill first proposed by Labour last year in which powers of search and surveillance would be expanded dramatically (to include warrantless searches, eavesdropping and tapping of computers and phones) by a broader range of government agencies–including local administrative authorities! The irony is that, rather than use the Urewera case as an example of how NOT to conduct a criminal investigation against political dissidents, the government has instead moved to relax legal restrictions governing covert monitoring of suspects, including on private property (i.e., the exact practices that were deemed illegal in September by the presiding judge in this case).
But the ultimate irony may be this. According to defendant Omar Hamed, “October 15 was a reminder that the state is not our friend. It is a violent, colonial, racist institution that serves the interests of the corporations and the ruling class. Well organised, anti-statist, defiant communities pose a threat to the state and colonial capitalism…” (taken from a passage included in the exhibition catalogue for the Arts auction “Explosive Expression” held to raise funds for the Urewera 18 on October 16, 2009 in Wellington). And yet it is this purported colonial, racist and corporate justice system that has allowed the Urewera 18 to formulate and fund a defense that has successfully challenged the case against them so far. It would seem that, at least in this case, utu (as both justice and revenge) does in fact come in colonial garb.
My view is that by the end of the process a majority of the defendants will be acquitted and only a handful will be convicted of minor firearms violations. It will be left for the NZ public to decide whether the entire affair was worth the effort, and whether indeed, if ever, there were the makings of a terrorist plot percolating in the Ureweras.
PS: I have some inquiries out at the moment that might allow me to update the status of the case. If so, I shall do so post haste and append a notification at the end of this post.
PPS: This post has been updated to reflect my remembering of another irony regarding the government response to its failures in this case (see irony #3 above) as well some fine points regarding the charges.