Exaggeration as a prosecution strategy.

Judging from the media coverage of the Urewera 4 trial, including video and audio evidence given by the Crown to the press, the prosecutorial strategy is quite clear. It consists of three interwoven strands that together offer a narrative about politically-motivated armed criminal conspiracy. The first is to say that the activities depicted in the evidence were serious military-style (paramilitary) training. The second is to characterize the exercises as, in the words of the Crown Prosecutor, “training for…guerrilla warfare,” something that implies a target and an objective. The third is to claim that this training constituted a clear and present danger to the New Zealand public, or at least to the political elite who the defendants in the alleged conspiracy commonly oppose. Although the usual sub judice protocols are said to be in place, selective  leaking of the video and audio tapes (whose legality is in dispute) helps the Crown backdrop its case, in a form of trial by media in which there is no right to rebuttal. The release of the audio and video evidence was done for prejudicial reasons, not because the Crown had to.

The problem for the Crown is that the video and audio evidence covertly collected by the Police suggest something less than dangerous proficiency on the part of Tame Iti and his activist comrades. There is no doubt that the camps had a paramilitary flavor to them. So do hunting camps, paintball competitions, male-bonding sessions and survivalist exercises. More tellingly, the video shows rank amateurism and indifferent commitment by the people involved.  As an example, Omar Hamed, an original defendant who is not on trial, is seen in close up video coverage looking like an excited 12 year old with his first rabbit hunting.22 (which was the actual weapon he was holding) as he stares directly but obliviously at a surveillance camera a meter away (which suggests a lack of situational awareness given that the Police claim that Mr. Iti repeatedly warned his activist colleagues to beware of “eyes and ears” on their activities). His pea shooter may or may not have been loaded. Mr Iti’s concerns, as it turns out, were justified.

In the video some people march purposefully and some shuffle listlessly and mill about while others converse and apparently shoot at unspecified targets. Some give instructions. Some wear balaclavas. A car bonnet is used to prop up a shot. There is rudimentary martial arts training seen in the video, but it is farcical given the skills of the people involved (in a creepy sidebar with relevance to this aspect, it is suggested in some quarters that Mr. Hamed is more dangerous to activist Left women than he is to the status quo). Audio of cluster fire (cluster fire is the overlapping of multiple shots from several weapons in order to saturate a target area) does not identify who was doing it or what they were shooting at, and the presence of spent cartridges under a pock-marked tree tells little in light of the amount of hunting that occurs in the Ureweras.

Frankly, I would be more concerned if the videos showed the activists on a boar hunt, slitting the throats of piglets while yelling “death to imperialism!” The activities shown are far from that and much more about make believe. From what I have seen, the NZ public have little to worry about from this crowd.

As I have said before, it is not a good look for anti-war, Maori and environmental activists to be playing at commando. But it is not a crime to do so–many other people do–so the prosecution’s case is built on a grand exaggeration. It attempts to show a level of competence, organization and training focus to the paramilitary exercises that simply was not there. If anything, the video evidence is an embarrassment to those in them, whether or not they had a political motive for being at the camps. That is curious because neo-Nazi groups do the same type of “training” with a better (yet pathetic) level of competence and a definite, publicly stated political goal of preparing for racial conflict, yet somehow have avoided being the subject of a Ruatoki-style Police response and four year Crown prosecution.

The Crown exaggerates its case not only to secure convictions but also to smear and deter. Mentioning the phrase “guerrilla warfare” indirectly introduces the word terrorism into the juries’ minds. By overlapping the two concepts the prosecution smears a certain type of Left activism with the dreaded “T” word. Even those not on trial–we should remember that all charges were dropped against  13 defendants–are tainted by their association with that word even though no formal charges of terrorism have been laid against any of them. The purpose of raising the specter of guerrillas in our midst is clearly to smear the defendants, but also to deter others on the Left who might wish to add paramilitary skills to their activist inventory.

The Crown imputes coherent motive to the defendants when it speaks of guerrilla warfare. It claims that it has evidence of such. But even if a common motive was established (perhaps hatred of “Da Man”), the inference is that this motive was focused on preparing to use armed violence against specific targets in pursuit of a unified goal. That is a stretch, not only because of the varied causes that the original group of defendants espoused, but also because of the clearly different levels of enthusiasm and combat skills they exhibit, none of which come remotely close to credible guerrilla organization and tactics.

Thus, from what the press coverage has been so far, the Crown prosecution of the Urewera 4 is much ado about nothing. The process is the punishment, because after four plus years of uncertainty, expense and de facto restrictions on their movements (some of the original defendants have been refused entry to foreign countries, which means that their names are on an international security list very likely provided by the NZ authorities), those on trial today, their Urewera colleagues and others on the activist Left (since the neo-Nazi Right appears to be immune) will think twice about making like Warriors even if this trial results in acquittals (the most likely case for conviction will be firearms law violations). Regardless of the outcome of the trial, in that regard the Crown prosecutors and the Labour and National governments that have overseen them will have won. Engaging in procedural delays, legal manipulation of charges and prosecutorial exaggeration is a successful Crown strategy regardless of the formal outcome.

That is the most troubling aspect of the entire affair. By stretching the definition of what constitutes a serious threat of domestic guerrilla warfare in order to prosecute a well-known group of Left-leaning fantasists (who may or may not have had wanna-be militant ambitions), in what appears to be a specifically targeted vendetta, the Crown has played loose with the basic rules of democratic jurisprudence. In doing so fairness and justice in the legal system has been sacrificed at the alter of political opportunity, which is a far worse outcome than the individual fates of the accused.

There may be new and alarming revelations to come that would substantiate the Crown’s case against the Urewera 4. But from where I sit, using what is currently in the public domain, this appears to be a prosecution based on malice, not facts.


41 thoughts on “Exaggeration as a prosecution strategy.

  1. “the video and audio tapes (whose legality is in dispute)”

    The legality of the video and audio tapes has been resolved. They were illegally detained, but the evidence on them is admissible in respect of those facing the more serious charges.

  2. neo-nazies have been sucessfully prosecuted in NZ.

    those on trial today, their Urewera colleagues and others on the activist Left (since the neo-Nazi Right appears to be immune) will think twice about making like Warriors

    i gather less paramilitary behaviour is exactly the intended outcome.

    just because they were stupid and incompetent doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of doing something, well, stupid, incompetent and dangerous.

  3. Neil, neo-Nazis in NZ have been prosecuted for actual crimes of violence or intimidation – not for merely pretending to prepare for the race war, which they continue to do in the foothills of the Southern Alps and elsewhere, unmolested, to this very day.

    Aotearoa has problems with institutionalised criminal violence and organised crime, but this does not generally have an overt political hue. Where such a political character exists, it is most associated with the very neo-Nazi groups about which the police appear to be unconcerned.

    The point is that Aotearoa emphatically does not have a problem with violent leftist activism. Long may it remain so, you might say, and I agree — but as a very minimal critique, given the paltry results of this extremely expensive and intensive campaign, these Crown resources could have been much better deployed elsewhere.


  4. Dear lazyweb/Lew/Pablo: do you know what sections of the Arms Act the activists are being charged under? Can’t find it anywhere.

    Also, “lawful purpose” – I assume this means any purpose that isn’t proscribed by law?

  5. “not for merely pretending to prepare for the race war, which they continue to do in the foothills of the Southern Alps and elsewhere, unmolested, to this very day.”


  6. Rich, I haven’t seen the court docs, but my understanding is that it’s s45 of the Arms Act, re restricted weapons and explosives. What constitutes a lawful, proper and sufficient purpose is a bit more tricky to determine; these aren’t codified in law to the best of my knowledge, and although some things are expressly ruled out (self-defence, for eg) I’m utterly certain that “target practice” is an entirely lawful and proper purpose.


  7. Hugh, I blogged about Marc Ellis’ boy’s own adventure with Kyle Chapman a year or two ago, and if you’ve been watching this topic you’ll know that Chapman, the Right-Wing Resistance and that lot are trying to establish a collectively-owned white nationalist territory in inland Canterbury. This is ongoing. Media interest dried up shortly after the announcement, but it’s still a live topic on Stormfront and such hangouts (or was as of late last year).


  8. Rich, It is s45 of the Arms Act that they are charged under, however the Crown is also using s66 of the Crimes Act (http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1961/0043/latest/DLM328506.html#DLM328506) to enable charges against one party to be used against all.

    Pablo, I fear that in your “creepy sidebar” links you are also guilty of trial by media, in which there is no right to rebuttal, in relation to Omar Hamed. This anonymous open letter has been circulated through numerous networks and it seeks to deny Omar Hamed any defence (other than that ascribed to him by the anonymous authors) and to prevent his participation in legitimate political and social activities. Mr Hamed has been justifiably angry at his persecution.
    This group in Wellington has a history of persecuting and publicly abusing male activists. All they ask is that their victims prove, to the satisfaction of the self-appointed defenders of women, that they will never commit another act which may be seen as abusive by any anonymous member – an impossibility, as they well know. No defence is allowed.
    As a woman, a feminist, and relative of one of the group’s former (and ongoing) victims – whose life has been in turmoil for years because of these actions – I ask that you consider the source of these rumours, the hearsay they are based on, and the consequences of spreading them through this blog. Then let your conscience determine your actions.
    Thank you.

  9. Thanks Lucy, for providing another side to the Omar story. Since I brought the subject up as a sidebar, I invite Omar and others to weigh in should they wish to.

  10. Lew, I’m aware of their homegrown Voortrekker project, but AFAIK their plan for establishing it just involves buying up land, not weapons training. Still pretty creepy but they aren’t threatening to overthrow the state, just sit out what they think is its inevitable collapse.

  11. Thanks Lucy. I wonder why not s.36 (carriage without authority) or s.50 (unlawful possession)? I’d say that absent a law proscribing “military training” in New Zealand, such training is a lawful purpose.

    (It’s a fundamental tenet that anything not illegal is permitted. There is no middle ground).

  12. Hi Lucy (and Pablo),

    I don’t have time to respond fully re: the Omar Hamed open letter, but just a quick note – it was not and is not anonymous, and never has been.

    When it was originally sent out, 6 months prior to it being placed online, there were a number of signatures attached to it. Additionally, 3 organisations signed onto the letter – the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement, the 128 Radical Community Centre and the Wellington branch of the Workers Party of New Zealand. The individuals who signed it were a mix of members of those groups and unaffiliated Wellington activists.

    The names were removed when we published it online for a few reasons – including that because in the online world, things tend to stay forever and spread beyond your control, and we didn’t feel like having our names publicly available and Googleable for eternity.

    I was one of the authors of the open letter, and I stand by what we wrote 100%

  13. I wouldn’t be surprised, Rich, if after this prosecution graunches to its inevitable not-quite-entirely-as-disgraceful-as-it-could-have-been end, like a banged up old ute whose owner can’t be bothered to have scrapped, we do see some kind of vaguely worded, unworkable law that seeks to ban “military style training”.

  14. Rich and Hugh: There is a precedent for such an overreach in the form of the new search and surveillance bill. If “military style” training is banned, then the Boy Scouts are goners.

    Asher: Thanks for adding your views and clarifying the situation regarding the Omar links.

  15. The police prosecutor Ross Burns tipped the media off on monday afternoon about the footage that he would be presenting on tuesday and suggested that the media apply to the judge to be allowed to use his powerpoint which the footage came from.

    He has also been identifying former defendants in the footage and pointing them out in the courtroom.

    This is quite obviously a trial by media.

  16. @Lucy: besides the not-actually-anonymous letter, others have blogged about their personal experiences with “Mr Hamed”, and if he wants a “right of rebuttal” I can only suggest he use the internet like everyone else does.

    Trying to characterize the situation as “trial by media” and implying that someone “listening to their conscience” would not mention the repeated, unanonymous, serious issues raised about Omar Hamed is … ooh, just the teensiest bit disingenuous, not to mention fitting in light of his apparent need to write off all criticism as a conspiracy theory.

  17. Hugh, the thing with Ellis covers weapons and hand-to-hand combat training, caches of food, infrastructure and communications gear, and other such. All this is confirmed by other sources with personal knowledge of the situation, and documented on forums such as Survive Club (though that one has not been updated since shortly after the first Canterbury earthquake).

    None of this is unusual; in fact, it’d be unusual if all this stuff wasn’t going on within a white nationalist movement.

    To be clear, though, I’m not calling for them to be hauled before the police either — clearly a bunch of deluded hoodlums with purity issues poses no meaningful threat to our civilisation or the safety and security of its inhabitants. I just want leftist and indigenous political groups to be accorded the same degree of tolerance as those who would re-implement the policies of arguably the most brutal regime in modern history. Seems a small ask, really.


  18. Interesting that s.20 (possession of a firearm without a license) is a relatively minor offence. I guess this is to protect redneck farmers who don’t bother getting a license.

  19. Rich, the reasoning is that mere possession is not in itself harmful. If someone’s actually doing something harmful, there are other things folk can be charged with.

    One of the more significant non-judicial penalties that can result from possessing a firearm without a license is being deemed “not fit and proper” to be a licensed user in the future. This is discretionary to the Arms Officer considering a license application, can result in forfeiture of any arms in possession, and — like disqualification from driving — practically guarantees future noncompliance.


  20. Pablo – I think this is a really important analysis (although I don’t quite agree with all of it – I agree with the key point) – thanks for writing it. In particular, the process as punishment cannot be emphasised enough.

    Lucy – I understand that you found people’s responses to Ira’s abusive behaviour very stressful. The position of Ira’s family has always been incredibly difficult; I can’t imagine how hard it is to learn that someone you love has been abusive.

    But whatever your feelings about Ira, that is no reason to minimize Omar’s behaviour. Omar has repeatedly responded to women telling him they weren’t interested by encouraging them to get more drunk and then making a physical move that the women had to fight off. A comrade of his tried to talk about his behaviour with him and said that even if you leave aside the experiences multiple women had described, his attitude towards sexual consent meant that he was a clear and present danger to sexually assault women in the future. That comrade was not the only person to challenge Omar’s behaviour – multiple people talked to him – over months. Again and again he minimised what he did. And, as QoT said, once we went public with the letter, more people came forward saying “I experienced that too”.

    Your vision of a consistent group of people in Wellington who are working on this is also unfounded. There are a small number of people who were involved in some of the responses to Ira’s behaviour, who also signed this open letter (me, Asher and another woman – also the 128 collective has banned both – but I’m not sure how much overlap there were in the people who were caretakers). Far more of those who signed the letter had nothing to do with any of the group or individual responses to Ira. For example, the entire Wellington branch of the workers party came to this conclusion based on their experience of Omar – none of them had anything to do with Ira. One of the defendants is a member of AWSM, which agreed to sign the letter by consensus. I understand why you had a misunderstanding of who signed the open letter, as the signatures weren’t public – but it was not the small consistent group you described.

    I know this must be an incredibly difficult time for you – I hope you’re OK.

  21. The most serious charges are being part of a criminal group -up to 10 years for that. The arms charges may not be seen as so minor in that light…

    You can hardly pick out the prosecution for criticism re exaggeration and ignore the orchestrated campaign by activists to down play this as nothing more than paintball, could have been solved with a cup of tea, and the hysteria around the raids trying to relight the land wars.

    >””we didn’t feel like having our names publicly available and Googleable for eternity.”

    Wow talk about courage of your convictions. Hilarious.

  22. @Rich: ” I’d say that absent a law proscribing “military training” in New Zealand, such training is a lawful purpose. (It’s a fundamental tenet that anything not illegal is permitted. There is no middle ground).”

    True. But I strongly suspect the prosecution’s case will be that this went beyond simply “training” in a generic “let’s get a certain set of skills for no particular purpose” sense and instead was preparation toward a particular end (which was unlawful … such as kidnapping, etc). The evidence of this (such as it is) will come from wire taps, etc that disclose conversations between the various accused.

    So all we’re seeing at the moment is the prosecution trying to prove these defendants were actually present when the “training” happened. We’re yet to see the full evidence of what were the alleged aims of that training. So, as insider says, the “lack of lawful purpose” part of the Arms Act charges is interlinked with the membership of a criminal group charges.

    As for the “overhype” point – maybe. But how exactly do expect the State to act? Unless we actually buy the liberal claim of a neutral referee that treats all citizens equally, is anyone REALLY surprised that the response to a number of armed political activists of the left playing toy soldiers is as it has been? And given that, doesn’t this reveal the participants for the silly narcissists that they are?

  23. I just want leftist and indigenous political groups to be accorded the same degree of tolerance…

    you you are aware that Jamie Lockett was part of this? A narcissist who wanted to take out some cops.

    Who desreves zero tolerance and anyone stupid enough to think they he’s a friend of any liberal cause deserves zero tolerance esp when they get together with guns and talk of killing people.

  24. Lew, I wasn’t aware of the Ellis piece, I’ll have to look it up. In my defense there is a tendency by the rest of the country to exaggerate the whole “skinheads in Christchurch” thing.

    As for the tricky legal boundary between training just for shits and giggles and training for some criminal purpose, isn’t this the reason we have the whole “Conspiracy to commit” menu of offenses? And isn’t the fact that the Crown isn’t using them essentially an admission that legally they have nothing to stand on?

  25. Hugh,

    Conspiracy charges require the identification of a particular crime that the participants are working towards. Membership of a criminal group charges require only that you are part of a criminal group in which at least three people have as “their objective or one of their objectives … the commission of serious violent offences … .”

    It’s the difference between a group of people coming together to beat up a particular person with baseball bats (conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm or the like) and a group of people coming together to use baseball bats to drive “the asians” out of a neighbourhood (without identifying any particular asian person they will attack, or specifying a time they will go out looking for asians, or the like).

    Here, I assume the Crown believes they have enough evidence to show these 4 defendants were generally planning violent activities, but hadn’t progressed on to specifying targets/times for attacks/etc. And I further assume the police didn’t want to leave them dangling in the wind to make such plans, in case they … you know … actually killed someone.

  26. Neil, why is Jamie Lockett not on trial, then? Clearly he has been tried — in the media.

    Hugh, yes — it’s easy to over-egg, and I don’t mean to suggest a bunch of pudgy goose-stepping ballheads are anything more than an annoyance. But on the face of the publicly-available facts their aims and actions are no less threatening to those of the Urewera Four, and yet their flag rallies at Parliament are granted police protection.


  27. I should note for those who still see a serious threat in the activities of the Urewera 4 that of the people who did the bulk of the tough talking about killing, etc (Lockett included), only one is on trial now. Leaving aside the state of mind of those doing the tough talking (it is very possible that they were intoxicated at the time they said things like bombing Bush with a bus), the fact that all but one of the tough talkers had charges dropped and are now free would indicate that the Crown did not consider their statements to be serious indications of intent. That makes its attempt to construe a criminal conspiracy involving these four defendants even more specious and to my mind unwarranted.

  28. Also on the topic of idle threats of politicised murder, a running joke among hunters, when asked to share a good spot, is to supply the following coordinates (via google maps, handheld GPS, or whatever): -41.27875,174.777136

    Hilarious, eh. Are we going to lock them all up too?


  29. @Pablo: “…the fact that all but one of the tough talkers had charges dropped and are now free would indicate that the Crown did not consider their statements to be serious indications of intent. That makes its attempt to construe a criminal conspiracy involving these four defendants even more specious and to my mind unwarranted.”

    I can think of another alternative. The charge of membership of a criminal group requires you to be a MEMBER of a GROUP. That then requires there be at least 3 people who share a common objective. So it may be that some of those “big talkers” were peripheral to/outside of the core individuals the Crown alleges were intending to commit these violent acts. Remember, they aren’t being charged just for talking/big noting. They’re being charged because the Crown believes there is sufficient evidence to show that talk manifests an actual intent to carry through violent actions.

    Also, isn’t the fact the Crown is restricting charges to just some persons actually show that its only prosecuting based on what it believes it can prove, rather than “throwing the book” at everyone involved as a deterrent to future activism? If the Crown really IS so vengeful and determined to make examples, why ISN’T Lockett, et al included in the charges? Or are the 4 remaining defendants somehow so important to left activism that they have been singled out for special treatment (on grounds other than that the Crown believes the evidence against them is stronger than against others)?

  30. Grassed Up:

    Another explanation is that the Urewera 4 were the most consistent attendees at, or organizers of the camps, whereas all the others were sporadic visitors. That would allow them to be very loosely construed as a “group.”

  31. @Grassed: I don’t often say this but it seems like those Conspiracy Rules are excessively narrow if they require a specific target.

    @Lew: And well they should be granted police protection, too (although I’m pretty sure the cop’s mission is to separate rival groups of protesters, not specifically to protect the pro-flag protesters).

  32. “@Grassed: I don’t often say this but it seems like those Conspiracy Rules are excessively narrow if they require a specific target.”

    Which is why we now have “member of an organised criminal group” charges on the statute books …

  33. Pablo writes:

    Grassed Up:

    Another explanation is that the Urewera 4 were the most consistent attendees at, or organizers of the camps, whereas all the others were sporadic visitors. That would allow them to be very loosely construed as a “group.”

    I think it’s undisputed that Signer was out of the country for 1/3 of the “camps”. If everyone else was more sporadic than that it pretty much fails any test for “organised” :)

  34. [Marianna, personal attacks on commenters are not permitted on Kiwipolitico, nor is outing people who choose to use pseudonyms.

    Portions of your comment would be acceptable, although somewhat off topic, so if you would like to rephrase and repost without the personal attacks or outing you would be welcome. If you would like me to email you the original wording of your comment so you can edit it just email me and I will copy it to you


  35. There was no personal attack. I merely stated facts . Perhaps it was a misinterpretation. My point was that Maia has defamed people and my outing of her was because she stated that her signing of the letter was not anonymous yet she used a pseudonym to say this. I would like to ask a question regarding personal attacks on this blog tho- when does a slanderous remark become a personal attack? Should the people defamed by Asher and “Maia” post even a single comment on this blog, would those posts making attacks against them be removed? If not then surely there are double standards here.

  36. Marianna,

    Yes, the line around what is as isn’t a personal attack is a tricky one, and far from an exact science.

    I guess there are a couple of points I factor in. Firstly, just because something is unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s either slanderous (it may be true) or an attack (it may well simply be facts that are relevant to this discussion). Secondly I think about whether it appears to be an attempt to pick a fight, or enflame a situation. Thirdly, I consider whether it forms part of a debate about an issue, as opposed to an issue about a debater. Finally, I think about whether that kind of comment might make people feel unsafe commenting here.

    Does that kinda make sense?

  37. I read today that a witness stated that Mr. Iti said to him that the training was for “urban warfare.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but that would be pretty hard to do out in the bush unless a mock city neighborhood had been built for the purpose. From what I gather no such mock city existed, which leads me to believe that Mr. Iti says a lot of things, not all of which are grounded in serious thought, real intention, or reality.

  38. I wondered if the charges are partly based on who could be positively identified and jointly linked with certain threats/intent and partly who might have been found in possession of weapons. These ones may literally have allowed their masks to slip

  39. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Against “courageous corruption” as Crown policy

  40. I wish to apologise for the comments made here by me in relation to Omar. I may have conflated two different situations. I know little about what happened with Omar and still do not. I believe I have made unwarranted assumptions. I apologise for any offence caused.

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