What exactly occurred in the Urewera forest in 2006 – 2007 which resulted in mass police raids, arrests and seizures from Northland to Christchurch and Palmerston North to Ruatoki?
Fear of terrorism gripped New Zealand with a vengeance on 15 October 2007. News wires lit up with images of black ninja clad members of the Police armed defender squad executing search warrants against 35 individuals at 51 locations across the entire north island of New Zealand, as well as Christchurch, “in respect to any building, box, vehicle, receptacle, premises or place”. NZ Police Commissioner Howard Broad convened a press conference to announce what was unfolding was a coordinated police response to a home grown terrorist conspiracy. The Commissioner made it clear that the imminent danger to society compelled him to act earlier than he had hoped or planned.
Almost five years earlier to the day, New Zealand passed the Terrorist Suppression Act, the expressed purpose of which was “to make further provision in New Zealand law for the suppression of terrorism”. This seemingly fortuitous piece of legislation was about to face its first test, in a big way.
In the hours that followed the breaking news, armed police set up roadblocks at “high risk” locations, forcing passing motorists from their cars and taking their photographs. Residents of the remote town of Ruatoki were held hostage in their homes. Police brandishing automatic weapons showed their overwhelming presence in rounding up the “terrorists”. Mainstream media claimed their sources reported the suspects had military training camps in the Urewera hills, where they wore paramilitary uniforms and stockpiled weapons and napalm. Similarities with Al Qaeda terror plots and talk of guerrilla training tactics were mentioned in vague terms.
New Zealanders were stunned. Nineteen people would be arrested; eighteen held without bail. Countless others were subjected to raids and seizures but never charged. The police response to claimed terrorism on our shores made news headlines around the world.
In the weeks that followed, it became clear that only the police and government account was getting through to the public. The culprits were behind bars. Defence lawyers, as they mustered to the challenge ahead, were encumbered by a legal culture that what happens in the courts of New Zealand stays in the courts. NZ lawyers are indoctrinated to believe that shining a light into court proceedings prejudices justice.
A problem for police in these mass arrests was that many of the accused were well known in New Zealand. They were a disparate group of Tuhoe sovereign activists, union organisers, avowed anarchists and fringe political elements. They were not only generally law abiding, they were – at least until now – peaceful activists. What seemed to connect them was an invitation to the Ureweras by Tuhoe at some point during the covert surveillance to discuss common political interests. In a demonstration which was rare given the apathy-prone New Zealand psyche, Kiwis took to the streets in large numbers to protest what many came to view as oppressive government action, if not tyranny.
This public display of displeasure was considered by many in the know to be instrumental in the Solicitor General refusing a month later to pursue prosecutions under the Terrorist Suppression Act 2002. In doing so the Solicitor General stated the evidence and the poor wording of the Act each created a legal barrier to prosecution under it. Those held for the four weeks in prison without bail while the Solicitor General had pondered his options were finally let free.
The defendants are now charged with various weapon charges; at least five are also charged with participating in an organised crime group (a novel reach for police based upon their evidence).
From the onset, police were in solidarity but the defence was in disarray. Many Maori and community activists recognised that increasing public awareness was key to achieving transparency and the interests of justice. Conversely, prominent Auckland University Law Professor Jane Kelsey strongly advocated a veil of secrecy, which included suppression of the Crown’s detailed allegations against the 18 publicly labelled as terrorists. While publicly advocating the defence position (she would later adopt the enigmatic call to “drop the charges” against the accused), Ms Kelsey’s fierce fight for secrecy – including writing numerous letters to the Solicitor General calling for prosecution of TV One, the Dominion Post and Kiwiblog for breaching the court suppression orders in their reporting of facts in the case – helped criminalise informed debate and allowed the unfettered police version to rule the day.
The blanket court suppression orders would be accompanied by orders from the Court that the defendants not associate with each other. Related search warrants and seizures occurred for months afterward, including the offices of some of the defence lawyers! Many of those charged – and some who were not charged – had their property confiscated. At dawn on 21 February 2008, twelve detectives and uniformed officers in seven vehicles raided the home and office of kiwisfirst‘s publisher in connection with news reporting of the raids and evidence. The search warrant, signed by an unidentified “deputy registrar of the district court”, was to confiscate Vince Siemer’s library card, a tropical print shirt and anything that might connect him to the accused – or with their lawyers. Police seized every electronic device and business record they could find, failing to provide an inventory of what they took. They later claimed they took too much to account for on the day. A subsequent application to the High Court at Auckland for disclosure of the police affidavit used to obtain the warrant was rejected by Justice Hugh Williams after police objected to producing it. It remains suppressed to this day. Despite no charges being laid, only some of the property seized has been returned.
Early on, seemingly nothing could prevent the public being fed the blinkered State account of events. In addition to being publicly branded as terrorists, TV stations played a newsreel of accused Tame Iti shooting a NZ flag on the ground at a marae so many times that if royalties had been paid him Iti would be a rich man. When revoking bail for the only defendant granted bail (Jamie Lockett, by District Court Judge Josephine Bouchier) Auckland High Court Justice Helen Winkelmann read out select quotes from the suppressed police affidavit in open court, including “I’m declaring war on this country”. Winkelmann claimed such statements demonstrated how dangerous Lockett was. The message, played out in black robe splendour for the press cameras, was the presumption of innocence ought not apply in this case. The police affidavit selectively read from by the judge remained suppressed.
Three and a half years on and still no trial in the cards for the accused, few in New Zealand realise what Winkelmann J relied upon to invoke public fear was nothing more than a impulsive rant from a man who had been the subject of intensive police surveillance and torment for 18 months, including the separation of his shoulder in police custody.
The aggrandising of the police case continued outside the courtroom, including allegations that Prime Minister Helen Clark had been physically threatened and that a plan was afoot to assassinate U.S. President George Bush. It turns out that the alleged threat to harm the Prime Minister was a phone call to Parliament from a man saying he had something to give her at Ellerslie racetrack. It was dealt to by her security staff giving the man a stern warning. As revealed during the Solicitor General’s 2008 prosecution of Fairfax News for printing excerpts from the police evidence, the plot to assassinate President Bush included catapulting a bus onto his head.
These are a few of the tidbits of evidence that derived from the mammoth 13 month covert police surveillance codenamed “Operation 8”, which placed hidden cameras along roadsides and staring into citizens’ homes, bugs in their cars and bedrooms, tracked their bank accounts and included interceptions of their phone, electronic and personal communications.
In the Ureweras, listening devices and cameras were placed among the trees. In this remote area, many residents hunt for their sustenance. The social culture is one of nature. As such, it is common for the native bush to be a venue for meetings and recreation. The community, centred in Ruatoki, also has a strong predilection toward Tuhoe sovereignty. This is where the seemingly revolving TV image of Tame Iti shooting the NZ flag with his rifle on a marae dovetails into the story.
The police evidence reveals alarms sounded at the police Special Investigation Group when surveillance picked up bravado texts that declared Tuhoe had to go to war to obtain sovereignty, chatter that Tame Iti had an AK 47 and eavesdrops that government agitators were travelling to the Ureweras for shooting escapades once a month or every other month. What few people realise is the police evidence indicates eleven to thirty people would go out for the morning to the woods with four to a dozen rifles.
Shooting at trees became the backdrop to a day of bonding and discussing similar interests. Such discussions might include open disdain for the police, the government or whatever. It may have included talk of hanging the Queen and obviously included Rambo style fantasies. Before the Terrorist Suppression Act, such talk might have passed as a free and democratic right to those who had demonstrated no intention, opportunity or ability to carry out such bluster.
Under the Arms Act 1984 in New Zealand, a person can be charged for carrying or possession of firearms by association. Hence, using the example above, all eleven on an outing can be legally charged with an offence which could carry a penalty of up to a $4,000 fine and/or three years prison.
This is not to suggest that the police case is contrived and ought not to have been acted on in some fashion. Contrary to recent rumours, there is evidence that the accused did at least handle guns. The talk among a number of the accused of Al Qaeda and IRA style suicide raids, making bombs, armed struggle and employing insurgent interrogation techniques was, and still is, quite disturbing. As are, at first sight, police surveillance images of rifle toting men wearing balaclavas and camouflage in the woods.
Certainly the police believe this was not appropriate behaviour for grown men, and perhaps they are right. But anyone with experience in such extensive and protracted police surveillance immediately came away with the conclusion “is that all they have?” when reading the police evidence. Armed raid of someone’s home, seizure of their possessions and being held without bond seems a disproportionate response to talking shit and being caught holding a rifle in the woods. The photos of the accused in camouflage and balaclavas (balaclavas are as common in Ruatoki as hoodies are in south Auckland) appear silly in comparison to the photos of how police were attired on the day of the raids. And no one would expect the police to include any tapped conversations that might allude to such exercises being a motivational, if not misguided, tool to create cohesion and resolve among Tuhoe activists fighting for an element of sovereignty in the hills when putting forth their prosecution.
Given the broad scope and depth of intrusion in the protracted surveillance, it is perhaps telling that the police evidence culled from this covert surveillance included an account of eavesdropping at a café that was so noisy that police admitted they could not make out the conversation. What they did hear was one of the men say “fucking police”. This two word remark, admittedly given no context, would become part of the police evidence used in support of obtaining the 51 search warrants. Similar examples were far too common in the evidence.
If the police were guilty of cherry picking comments and partial sentences from months of electronic surveillance to trump up their case, their informants were perhaps guilty of worse. No one knows for sure the extent of this or even how many informants the police used in Operation 8, but the police affidavit in support of securing the search warrants is replete with redacted references to the information relied upon from them. One identified informant allegedly let off of charges of passport fraud was contacted for this story by kiwisfirst. The man with direct links to at least one of the accused surprisingly claimed not to know about the mere fact of the prosecutions.
What appeared early on to be a runaway train had few fingerprints on the wheel. Police procedure required briefing Cabinet beforehand, but this may or may not have immediately trickled down to Crown Law. Prime Minister Helen Clark gave reserved support to the police operation. Police Minister Annette King and Attorney General Michael Cullen were out of their depth and, presumably, were perfectly content to take the ride. How much Solicitor General David Collins knew about the police evidence, or lack thereof, before the raids is unclear, but his office would be the focal point as the accused languished in prison.
Part of the police strategy involved painting a pattern of past offending. Past traffic violations and even public protesting had been submitted to the Auckland High Court to bolster applications for various warrants from High Court Justices Lang, Potter and Venning. After the arrests, the slightest hint of personal misconduct underpinned the need to keep the individuals in prison. Rangi Kemara was claimed to be the “main suspect” in the hacking of the National Party website in 2004 and Lockett was described as having been “previously arrested”.
From the police evidence, it appears the 2004 hacking into the National Party website provided the genesis of Operation 8 itself. Though no one was ever charged in connection with the hacking – which entailed uploading anti-National Party images to the website – the operation seemed to take on a life of its own. It developed that Kemara had been granted a firearms licence and had a large collection of guns, as well as a fondness for wearing camouflage clothing and engaging in war games. It appeared to snowball from there.
If Tuhoe activists were running a “quasi military training camp” bent on producing terrorists in the Ureweras as police asserted, they were far from stealth or even sufficiently equipped. At least initially, open invitations went out to pretty much any individual or group whose political views were at odds with the government’s view. What police asserted to be military regalia was in fact ordinary camouflage clothing which some of the accused routinely wore out in public. The so called training exercises did not have enough guns to go around and police would count less than 200 shots ringing out on one “training” day. Still, according to the police portrayal, an eavesdropped conversation snippet concerning the making of bullets and bombs punctuated the magnitude of the Armageddon plans.
As with Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction were apparently never found.
It is understood that in addition to a fair number of hunting rifles, the police raids did confiscate the AK-47 (a .30 caliber semi-automatic weapon which is not illegal and whose design dates back to the 1940’s), a Glock 19 blank-firing pistol, a sawed off shotgun, at least one specialised high powered rifle, as well as a .22 caliber rifle in Wellington. Curiously, given the huge hype and subsequent expense and secrecy surrounding this endless prosecution, there is a document on Wikileaks which purports to be a U.S. Embassy wire from Wellington in late 2007 stating NZ police advised the accused are not likely to face custodial sentences – information which begs the question of why the police are determined to paint a picture of home grown terrorism, let alone put the taxpayer through the mega-million dollar expense of prosecuting their own citizens, for the realistic expectation of collecting a $4,000 fine.
Such massive expense on the taxpayers’ backs might be remotely justified if they were hearing any truth after a month, a year, or coming up now on four years. Instead, the High Court has become a black hole of truth, justice has been denied through inordinate delay and the only ones who have seen trial are the Dominion Post editor Tim Panckhurst, who was acquitted of contempt for breach of suppression orders in 2008 and kiwisfirst publisher Vince Siemer whose trial on the same charge concluded last week and is awaiting a reserved decision.
The Operation 8 court prosecution now has all the hallmarks of a staged event. In the vacuum of truth and the absence of any resolution, the accused have already been given their sentence. They have been branded terrorists for almost four years, their lives have been put on hold, those who had personal assets have seen these wither away toward their defence and the personal cost of fighting the endless resources of the State have taken their toll on every one of them.
This month the defendants were told their trial will not now occur until at least February 2012.
Meanwhile, the fight over what is evidence, what can be used and what the mode of trial will be might as well be occurring on Mars. The Supreme Court has reserved its decision into whether High Court Justice Winkelmann or the Court of Appeal was correct as to the legality of some of the police warrants on Tuhoe land after a hearing in May. Another Supreme Court hearing is set to challenge the accused being denied their statutory right to trial by jury. All of this has been deemed top secret by order of the New Zealand courts. No judicial reasons were given as to why this is so.
That Maori have filed a United Nations human rights complaint over the episode might provide at least part of the answer. Secrecy is the time tested method of damage control used by the NZ government and courts. From the Mt Erebus plane crash to the Berryman Bridge collapse to the Operation 8 prosecution, little has changed in this respect. Inconvenient truths such as Air New Zealand management’s culpability in the Erebus crash and the NZ Army’s improper use of laminated timber which caused the death of a man when the eight year old bridge collapsed are furtively kept out of the official court record. In this historical context, denial of trial by jury in the Operation 8 prosecutions is worrisome. Judging from past experience this contravention of a statutory right has to do with relying on a Crown Judge to give the appropriate winks and nods and spin to the facts.
There is also the hope that after so many years of being kept in the dark, the public will have lost interest over what created the 911 headlines in 2007.
Crown prosecutor Ross Burns is undeterred by the passage of time. In the Siemer contempt trial, Burns stated non-custodial sentences are appropriate “in the case of a few of the minnows” but that the Crown is determined to seek varying levels of prison time for those who attended more than “one or two camps”. Two of the accused have already accepted the prosecution’s offer of non-custodial sentences. The rest seem destined to await a trial. In the meantime, Burns’ law firm Meredith Connell is milking the public treasury as the standard bearer for the crown prosecution.
An Official Information Act request by kiwisfirst, seeking to know the cost to date of the prosecution, has not been responded to as this article is posted.