Last year’s October Police raids were highly unusual in New Zealand – because of the high number of Police involved and the high numbers of Maori sovereignty, environmental and political activists arrested. And crucially, because Police attempted to charge those arrested under the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA).
Controversy has abounded since – Solicitor General David Collins ruled the allegations did not fall within the guidelines of the TSA, and suggested the Act itself needed rewriting. Police charged the majority of those arrested under the Arms Act instead.
Tuhoe iwi members who were not arrested are suing the Police for breaching their rights by strip-searching them, detaining them in sheds for hours, having mug-shot style photographs taken, and being stopped by illegal roadblocks when the raids took place.
That the Police behaved differently in Ruatoki in the heart of Tuhoe than they did in Wellington or Auckland, where they arrested Pakeha activists, is at the heart of concerns raised by those who argue the Police raids were inappropriate – and has spurred on protest and ongoing global activism since.
The name of the raids themselves is contested, with early reports describing them as ‘anti-terror’ and protestors dubbing them ‘state terror’. You can read an account by an arrested Pakeha activist here and see photos of roadblocks in Tuhoe here.
An extremely high level of Police monitoring took place, including communications from those arrested via email and phone over a period of several years, legal only because Police were using the TSA. Much of this will now be inadmissable. According to the Listener, in arrestee Jamie Lockett’s case, the evidence gathered was 24,000 pages long and included thousands of personal details of other Trade Me users over a five year period.
Police Commissioner Howard Broad has since apologised to Maori for the hurt the raids caused, while continuing to uphold the Police’s responsibility to public safety.
Fairfax New Zealand faces prosecution for publishing materials which Police gathered under the TSA, no longer allowed as evidence. The Solicitor General described their reporting as “sensational, memorable, prejudicial and completely inadmissible.”
All of which leads me to the depositions hearing of those arrested now taking place. At the defence’s request, and perhaps because of earlier coverage by Fairfax, the Judge has banned the media reporting any details because some evidence presented may prove to be inadmissable and could restrict future access to a fair trial. Media law expert Steven Price says he wonders if this reasoning “cuts the mustard” and I agree.
These Police raids were, as I noted above, unprecedented in New Zealand. They raised the spectre of organised activist violence. They raised the spectre of extraordinary state monitoring of dissenting activist activity. There are, according to the most recent DomPo article, a total of 291 charges laid under the Arms Act against the 18 people arrested.
It has not been alleged, to my knowledge, that anyone ever actually used a gun or anything else to hurt anyone. If none of these charges are any more valid than people having guns which are not properly registered (just like, I suspect, large numbers of weekend hunters in New Zealand) and the Police are targetting political activists to stifle dissent in New Zealand – then I want to know. Because if that is the case, then this really is a case of state repression – people caught up in a web of scrutiny for a period of years – scrutiny, which included their personal lives and which must have dragged in literally hundreds if not thousands of New Zealanders. To say nothing of the cost of the operation – alleged to be $8 million by activists.
But if some of these charges are valid and imply real intent to harm – then I am equally interested. 291 charges is a lot. Protesters have argued since the Police raids that this has been a beat-up, and that all charges should be dropped. Personally I cannot support this when I don’t know what happened – and we are all poorer for not being able to follow this complex case in a fair and balanced way in the media.
Let’s just hope the final trial is not subject to the same restrictions, and that the media takes the responsibility associated with these issues seriously. I agree with the Solicitor General (I’m sure he’s pleased) that the reporting by the DomPo was sensational and prejudicial – this is a real case of public interest, with wide-ranging consequences about what kind of New Zealand we want to be living in.