Does New Zealand have Political Prisoners?

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. The sedition law that convicted him was repealed last year, and it is clear that his sentence involved more than the act of axe-throwing.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  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?

18 thoughts on “Does New Zealand have Political Prisoners?

  1. Yes yes yes! :)

    WRT to both Selwyn and the October 15 raids. If they had been charged with crimes relating to playing silly buggers with an axe/gun and treated consistently with others facing similar charges that would be one thing, but they were charged with why they did it and with what they were thinking. How could that be anything but a political charge?

    The fact that the people charged out of the Oct 15 raids were held in prison when people charged with comparable silly buggers with guns crimes makes them pretty indisputably political prisoners.

  2. It is not so much the term “political prisoner” nowadays, but the profiling of and warning to members of society not of its order of rule.

    I was visited by police in early 2002 as a suspect in the Tiger Woods case, this because I has sent faxes to the American embassy criticising the idea of an intervention in Iraq (when I first heard of the idea being taken seriously post 9/11). Not having any priors meant nothing, to be critical of American government policy immediately made one a “possible terrorist” threatening the lives of Americans.

    Essentially people opposed to the US going into Iraq were being warned they were fellow traveller suspects in the war against terrorism.

    PS American Mensa has a (bio electro magnetic field technologoes – one form used in the first Gulf War against the Iraqi army) “resonance” group concerned about the use of psychological warfare against the American people.

  3. You’re way too kind on Zaoui. He deliberately destroyed his travel documentation en route to NZ. Then he chose not to return to his homeland or to any other jurisdiction, even though his wife and family were living in Malaysia without apparent harm. His ongoing imprisonment was primarily his own choice.

    NZ should also exercise choices. It can accept or decline immigrants, even refugees. Someone like Zaoui with at least an “uncertain” background need not have been given the benefit of any doubt. That he remains in NZ, a free man, reunited with his family through the generosity of NZers, says more for this country’s comfortable humanitarianism than it does for its national risk management.

  4. Carrier: The post is not about Zaoui per se, and I therefore will not educate you on the facts of the matter. Plenty has been written already and you get read the Refugee Status Appeals Authority report that slams the government’s case. But I will point out that under UN refugee protocols, people seeking asylum are advised to destroy their passports before arriving at their sanctuary destination and to announce their real names and reasons for arrival to the immigration authorities upon disembarkation. Zaoui did just that.
    As for his “uncertain” background–that was a fiction spun by the government. Anyone who knew Zaoui prior to his arrival knew with certainty that he is a man of peace, not (armed) action. The charges trumped up against him by the Algerians, French and Belgians have all been discredited by international jurists.

  5. Carrier,

    Zaoui was recognised by NZ legal processes as a refugee under our own law and the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. By definition he could not safely return to Algeria.

    The debate was not about whether we should send a refugee home to die, it was firstly whether he was a refugee (and our legal processes resolved that he was) and secondly whether he was a risk to our national security (and our legal processes eventually determined that he wasn’t).

    Are you saying that despite those two factual decisions we should have put him on a plane and sent him home to die?

    My problem (and I’m guessing Pablo’s) with the situation was the completely unreasonable process used to determine whether he was a risk to national security, the rubbish grounds that the SIS tried to use, how long the process took, and the way we treated him and his family during the process.

    The government’s poor process, its capture by the SIS, the lack of checks and balances, and a ridiculous need to be liked by “western powers” meant that NZ crossed the line into one which takes political prisoners and punishes them for non-existent crimes based on rumour and innuendo.

    P.S. Pablo, oops! :)

  6. I confess that I don’t share your comforting faith in UN protocols, international jurists or even NZ legal processes.

  7. Carrier,

    So if you don’t trust the decisions of NZ legal processes, how should we decide?

    And to slide back toward Pablo’s original point, given our legal processes have created political prisoners maybe shouldn’t trust them. Maybe we should quit locking people up when we think the process may be creating prisoners based on either bad process or possible thought crimes.

  8. Agree with you completely, Pablo. Couching law in political terms just invites abuse by the government in power. It is not as if we have a lack of other criminal laws, if the political protest borders on criminal, even though the police apparently aren’t interested in using them.

  9. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Zaoui: the lessons

  10. SPC suggests:

    It is not so much the term “political prisoner” nowadays, but the profiling of and warning to members of society not of its order of rule.

    Absolutely. One example I am absolutely certain is applicable in NZ is those who annoy the police by criticising their methods (e.g. Rochelle Rees, me, and a few others I could name but won’t because I’m not entirely certain they would want me to).

    In Rochelle’s case it was by standing up for her right to protest and not to be subject to bogus searches, trumped up charges and unnecessary spells in custody as a result. With me it all started with articles exposing and criticising police issuing falsified crime statistics (not nationally, but locally… though that of course must have a flow-on effect on national stats I guess). I didn’t take the hint and shut up, and it escalated from there…

    There is no doubt in my mind that people who are seen as a nuisance to established power structures are targeted by various agencies within the criminal justice system. Here in WA the police are unable to catch a serial killer who’s been at large since 1995, so they’ve gone ahead and named the President of the Council for Civil Liberties as a suspect – an allegation they’ve refused to substantiate or withdraw for over a decade.

    Then there’s the former senior prosecutor turned defence barrister whose wife was murdered. He too was named as “the only person of interest” years ago, but has never been charged. He’s suing and Police have confirmed they won’t be trying to use truth as a defence!!

    There have been plenty of incidences of security services misuing their power (or being misused… it is never clear which) to target people who are no more than activists.

    Inevitably some of these people must end up in the courts; if not for what they have genuinely done then for something they have been fitted up for. And many of these end up in our jails. So yes, their number may be small, but NZ does, I’m absolutely convinced, have “political” prisoners.

  11. Every prisoner in New Zealand is a poltical prisoner because the laws were made by politicians.

    There is no rythme nor reason to laws, there are all designed to limit or facilitate the behavour of the villagers. Such is the power Parliament has: on one day, it will pass a law preventing me from carrying a nail file on on aeroplane, and that evening it will enact the payment of more public funds directly into each Member’s own bank account.

    Aunty Helen’s slavish response to Dubya’s insistance on anti-terrorism laws is worrying. The laws themselves are draconian. We (apart from the Urewera Branch of Al Queda) are lucky that the aparatus of the state has adopted a generally benign approach to enforcement. Imagine, for example, what could have happened if they had acted on the information gathered by their spy who got hold of Green Party internal emails; every Green MP could, technically, be charged with economic treason for putting onto the internet scientific information that proved, beyond doubt, that “Clean, Green New Zealand” is, in fact, a lie.

    What I most worry about is when you consider the “social control” legislation alongside the small print in the trade agreements.

    If those requirements are enforced, we will all end up in jail. Or working in shoe factory.

  12. Macdoctor:

    It is not as if we have a lack of other criminal laws, if the political protest borders on criminal, even though the police apparently aren’t interested in using them.

    My italics. Don’t be ridiculous. The real problem for the police is that our political protesters seldom do anything illegal. Where they do it is seldom serious, and is usually recognized by the courts as being part of a legitimate protest. For instance I was around to hear a judge rule on this case.

    A judge has dismissed a charge of offensive behaviour against a woman who bared her breasts at a Destiny Church rally in downtown Auckland, saying “a bare-breasted woman can hardly be said to be an alarming sight”.

    Emma Jean Wills was protesting in March against the church’s anti-abortion stance.

    However this has not stopped the police from regularly charging people for things that they haven’t done. For instance charging someone with burglary when all he did was deliver a letter at a protest.

    She says plain clothes police were unusually quick to a protest at the Tegel Turkey headquarters, where a protest letter was handed over and hay scattered on the floor.

    Their presence had serious implications for protester Jesse Duffield.

    “Jesse’s house was raided; they took away heaps of his stuff. They took his car away and charged him with burglary, wilful damage and unlawfully being in a building,” says Ms Rees.

    The charges were later withdrawn

    In this case the police withdrew the charges a few days before it was due to go to trial – over a year later – and insisting in the status hearing to that date that there was sufficient evidence to sustain the charge. Essentially the police concerned were deliberately lying to the court.

    Basically you are living in cloud-cuckoo land if you think that the police don’t do much about protesters. However I just suspect that really you’re just saying that you don’t like the laws on protest, and that it should be illegal. It is after all the standard position for nice conservatives who don’t want social change…

  13. Lprent:

    However I just suspect that really you’re just saying that you don’t like the laws on protest, and that it should be illegal. It is after all the standard position for nice conservatives who don’t want social change…

    Nice assumption. Pity it’s nonsense. I do not like laws against protesting at all, as per my comment, which I assume you didn’t actually read. Such laws do more harm than good to the political process.

    I have an issue with protesters breaking the normal criminal laws of our country and walking away unpunished, such as our famous Father Burns.

    And FYI, I don’t like the police behaving like jack-booted morons any more than you do.

  14. The fact that the police target some dissenters more than others regardless of the nature of their protests is a cause for concern because it shows a Police ideological bias against some forms of counter-hegemonic activity regardless of whether crime is committed or not. Moving from there to imprisoning people for their beliefs on the same selective grounds may not be as far a stretch a some may think.

  15. Protest is (or should be) the inalienable right of all of us. The only proviso should be that it does no harm. so Father Burns has the absolute right to protest but plainly did harm by his actions, not least to his reputation but that’s another matter. “Sticks and stones etc”. While it’s nice to hear of the Police charging at least someone with burglary, what a pity it wasn’t a real burglar. Another reputation irreparably damaged. One wonders when this vital institution will wake up to itself. The SIS manages to shoot itself in the foot yet again but in its defence and, hold my nose, Helen Clark’s, the Zaoui example demonstrates their difficulties. NZ has not had the sort of events which have made much of the rest of the world nervous. Until you have seen violent death, it’s an abstract. Sure you shouldn’t get in the kitchen unless you can stand heat but what seems like a simple right/wrong decision from an arm chair is freqently a different matter when you are involved in the decision. Which does not excuse the various gross errors of judgement listed in this thread. Free speech of whatever variety is too precious to abuse the way we have done recently.

  16. Mac:

    I have an issue with protesters breaking the normal criminal laws of our country and walking away unpunished, such as our famous Father Burns.

    The problem is that the normal criminal laws of this country are a matter of double interpretation. They have to be interpreted by the police, and then by the courts. This typically takes a year to get to trial.

    A lot of the time with protesters the police drop the charge or fail to present evidence at trial. Most of the time the judges throw it out. Where they don’t then the appeal to the high court throws it out.

    This allows the police to run a punishment system of putting people through the aggravation of court without bothering to even want to convict. That appears to be what some people and units in the police are doing.

    So the underlying problem with your premise is that the police appear to be incapable of laying appropiate charges under current criminal law.

    Police need to either have the power to lay charges removed from them, or be required to (at the very least) pay compensation for legal fees and time when they fail to convict. At present the police have absolutely no incentive to improve their performance on charging through to conviction.

    With most protesters what happens most of the time for those who go through to trial is that they have an extra-legal punishment from the police. It would probably be the case for those who op for diversion rather than go through a year of hell.

    What I was really irritated about with your comment was the simplistic notion that the police under-charge protesters. From what I’ve seen with activists is that they usually massively over-charge. It allows them to obtain search warrants and intimidate with the court systems.

    BTW: Incidentally I’d expect that October 15 raids will result in at best 3 or 4 convictions on minor charges from looking at the stuff that has come to the public eye. Unfortunately you cannot convict people for simply being stupid and blowhards (otherwise most of the population including large numbers of police would be behind bars).

  17. Mac: An example for your edification..

    As I said before, most protesters don’t do anything illegal in the eyes of the court – just in the eyes of the police and other people who don’t understand the law. The police surely don’t keep track of legal decisions.

    For instance my niece Rochelle got charged and convicted of for using a megaphone at a protest during the day on a busy city street.

    It was over-turned on appeal to the high court with Rochelle largely doing the appeal. The basis of the judgment was that while a megaphone was noisy, it was expected that protests should be noisy because they were trying to draw attention to an issue.

    So next time she was out on a protest with a megaphone, guess what she was arrested for? Despite telling the police what the legal position was. The young idiot police with more self-importance than sense of duty arrested her for using a megaphone at a protest and refusing to stop when they told her to do so.

    After they got back to the central station, they decided to charge her for disorderly. The main reason appearred to be to save face for the arresting officers. When that charge got to trial a year later the police didn’t offer any evidence and the charge was dropped.

    Now I’d look at that as simply being punitive.. What do you think? A good use of police resources using the normal criminal law?

    There are a *lot* of cases like this amongst activists. Your calls (and others) for more application of the criminal structure against protesters will be interpreted by police to do more of this crappy work. It will go against people doing things are peaceful, legal, and public protest and activism.

    Like almost all of the people in the Oct15 raids – who will fail to be convicted. At present the police appear to be running a strategy of trying to delay the time to trial.

  18. Lprent:

    I understand your problem with crappy police work. I certainly agree with you that many of these cases have been poorly handled. But you are just emphasizing the point I am trying to make. There is no need to have special laws for protesters or apply anti-terrorism and sedition laws heavy-handedly to a simple protest action. These would simply add to the problem of inappropriate use of law.

    What is needed is not ever more harsh penalties and draconian terrorism laws, but a better trained police force and a swifter, more efficient court system. The policemen in the second case you cited should have known that use of a megaphone is not illegal at a protest as this was now a matter of interpreted law from Rochelle’s first case (and probably others before that).

    Because our police force is under-trained and ill-informed and our courts clogged with petty crime, there is a tendency for policemen to ignore minor offenses which require actual police work, as they just add to a stressed system. On the other hand, they will pursue cases like Rochelle’s megaphone use because the work required is minimal (the policeman witnessed the “offense”), regardless of the eventual outcome.

    The solution for this bureaucracy-laden police force is substantially to increase the current force (I would think double it), improve their training and continuing education and, most important of all, streamline the court system so that minor offenses are dealt with speedily. The latter can be achieved by booking an immovable court date at the time of arrest, no more than two weeks from the arrest date.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *