Anita’s thread on the failures of the 5th Labour government got me to thinking about the criminalisation of political dissent during its tenure. That in turn got me to wonder about whether there have been politically-motivated incarcerations in recent (since 1995) times. I can think of three, but since I am a relatively new immigrant (currently in economic exile of sorts) and new to the intimacies of New Zealand political life, I am not sure if there have been others.
Ahmed Zaoui was clearly a political prisoner. He posed no threat to anyone, much less the security of NZ. Yet he was incarcerated for over two years, including one year in solitary, because of what he represented–the face of political Islam that was not a lapdog of Western (read in this case French) interests. Right wing troglodytes and bigots may not like it, but he committed no crime in NZ and he never committed an act of violence against anyone, anywhere. Yet the Labour government saw fit to violate his civil rights in order to curry favour with the French and look good in the war on terror (at least in the eyes of the US, Australia and the UK). Shame on Richard Woods (SIS director general at the time), Lianne Dalziel (Immigration Minister at the time), and Helen Clark for orchestrating this farce–remember “lie in unision?” Praise Allah for Deborah Manning, Rodney Harrison and Richard McLeod for speaking truth to that abuse of power.(Note to retrogrades: Allah means God so chill on the pro-terrorist accusations).
Tim Selwyn spent more than year in stir having been found guilty of sedition.Â The sedition law that convicted him was repealed last year, and it is clear that his sentence involved more than the act of axe-throwing. But there is no doubt that he was, in effect, a political prisoner (a label I am sure he now wears with honour). Whether he deserved to be is open to debate.
The Urewera 17 were initially held without bail while the police decided whether to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act of 2008, this in spite of the fact that the TSA was ostensibly directed at external threats rather than internal dissent. Although the Solicitor General wisely declined to press charges under the TSA and the defendents were subsequently released on bail, their trial has been delayed to late 2009 or 2010, denying them swift justice and costing them plenty both financially and in terms of peace of mind. Could that be a form of governmental harassment? More importantly, given the para-military style of the raids in which most were arrested, was there a signal being sent to would-be dissenters about the price to be paid for voicing political opinions in unconventional and anti-status quo ways? We might agree that many of those involved are a pain in the rear of the authorities and have a track record of animus with the police, and we may agree that they should face firearms charges, but does that justify the repression involved? In fact, with a few exceptions, even if they are convicted on firearms charges, any jail sentence for the majority of the Urewera 17 Â would be excessive. And if they are jailed, will they then be political prisoners?
I have long thought that criminalising dissent and creating a separate body of ‘political” crimes is the beginning of the slippery slope towards authoritarianism (a regime type I know intimately). If people commit crimes in pursuit of political objectives, they should simply be charged under the provisos of criminal and civil law. If those provisos are incapable of dealing with politically motivated crimes, they need to be revised. Creating and prosecuting “political crimes” elevates their status to something beyond mere criminality, thereby raising the profile of the cause being espoused in the public consciousness. That attracts attention, both pro and con, that accused and incarcerated activists may or may not deserve.
Which brings me back to my original question: have there been political prisoners in New Zealand since 1995? Do they come from the far right, far left, Maori nationalists, IRA or Islamicist supporters, anarchists, environmentalists, animal rights activists or a combination thereof? Do they only come from some groups and not others (say, lefties but not neo-Nazis), and if so, why is that?
I guess my bottom line is this: if there are any political prisoners at all, what does that say about the quality of New Zealand democracy?