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Dr Muriel Newman

The Ureweras – the real story

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Last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the Murdoch newspaper group in the UK, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave evidence that the biggest problem with the press was the blurring of lines between news and comment, whereby reporting stopped being straightforward journalism to became an “instrument of political power”.

This blurring of the line between journalism and political spin is as much a concern here as it is in the UK. With more people accessing their news from the internet instead of from more traditional sources, newsrooms are shrinking under constant cost-cutting pressure. As a result media outlets are increasingly relying on third party material, rather than investigative journalism. This has reached a point where professional activists are able to stage and film a protest then send the footage to the media, knowing it will probably screen as news – and usually without acknowledging its source. While this might be convenient, it is certainly not journalism and not news as we know it. At the very least, such stories should carry a rider explaining that the footage was supplied by a third party with the name of the source so that the public can make up its own mind about the reliability of the material.

It is the domination of propaganda over reality that led to a serious bias in the reporting of the case against those arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities in the Ureweras. A sophisticated propaganda war has been waged to convince the public into believing that the events that took place in the Ureweras were innocent and legitimate – nothing more than bushcraft and training for wannabe security guards. One of the defence lawyers even earnestly told the jury that ringleader Tama Iti is a prophet no less – New Zealand’s version of Nelson Mandela!

Left-leaning political commentator Chris Trotter, in a recent column, In a Weakened State, explains that in the Urewera case, the “vigour and sophistication of the Left’s propaganda capabilities… in the struggle for hearts and minds” have been utterly underestimated. He describes how skilful the Defence were in using “sympathetic journalists strategically located throughout the news media” – along with social media and the Internet – to shape public opinion.

The reality is that a group of radical Maori sovereignty activists had come together with extreme environmentalists and so-called peace campaigners, to support the Tuhoe “cause”. Combined they created a potent mix of anti-establishment fanatics and career protestors with a potential for revolutionary action. Thanks to the leaking of a detailed Police affidavit that outlined the case against the group, and the brave decision of the former Editor of the Dominion Post Tim Pankhurst to publish the story by investigative journalist Phil Kitchin in November 2007, New Zealanders were able to see for themselves what was really going on. You can read the news story, “The Terrorism Files” here>>>

At training camps deep in the Ureweras, these activists dressed in camouflage gear and participating in military-style drills, were using lethal weapons and firing live ammunition. They undertook counter-intelligence training, they were shown how to ambush vehicles and extract passengers under live fire, and they practised throwing Molotov cocktails. They talked about plans to bomb strategic facilities and kill people.

As a result of the mounting evidence the Police quite rightly launched what they called Operation 8. On the morning of October 15th 2007 some 300 Police, including members of the Armed Offenders and anti-terror squads, executed search warrants relating to the offences of participating in a Terrorist Group and unlawfully possessing firearms and restricted weapons, in Ruatoki and nearby Whakatane, Auckland, Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton, Tauranga, Gisborne, Wairoa, and Taupo. Altogether 18 people with links to the alleged weapons-training camps were arrested. Guns and ammunition were seized.

The case itself was dogged by a succession of unfortunate events. The Terrorism Suppression Act, under which charges were to be laid, had been passed in a hurry by the Clark Government in 2002, following the 911 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Warnings had been given at the time that the Act was being rushed too quickly and would prove to be unworkable. That turned out to be the case, and while the Solicitor General concluded that the Police had a “sufficient and proper basis” for concern about the activities in the Ureweras, he nevertheless ruled that the Terrorism Suppression Act could not be used. As a result, some of the evidence crucial to the case was unable to be used in court.

Over the years that followed, there were numerous appeals and counter appeals to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Suppression orders were granted over a wide range of issues, some of which were later revoked. It was ruled that defendants would be tried by a judge-only, but then it was changed to a jury trial. A jury member had to be discharged due to the death of a close relative, and one of the accused awaiting trial died from medical complications.

Thirteen of the accused, who faced charges of unlawful possession of firearms and restricted weapons under the Arms Act, had their charges dropped for legal and technical reasons. Since they were being charged under the Arms Act – while the four main accused also faced charges of participating in an organised criminal group under the Crimes Act – their cases could not be heard together. With the main trial scheduled first, the 13 accused would have been forced to wait for a period of more than four and a half years for their trial – and if it went ahead, the main trial would have needed to be subjected to a wide range of suppression orders. Given those considerations and the fact that the accused had been remanded in custody following their arrest and had been on restrictive bail conditions for much of the time since their release, the Crown decided that a continuation of proceedings against them was not in the public interest.

So what was the evidence that caused the Police to believe that a private army was being established to gain control of the Urewera National Park and secure an independent Tuhoe nation? The details are now widely available – through the trial Judge, the Crown Prosecutor, witnesses, the Police, the Commissioner of Police, the media, and through the Police affidavit itself, which can be found on the Internet.

The evidence shows that Police surveillance of the accused began in April 2006 and over the next 18 months a group were seen to be recruiting and training people capable of joining a terrorist army committed to securing the Maori sovereignty goal of an independent Tuhoe nation.

As incredible as it may seem, the Police affidavit showed their strategy was to establish small squads capable of committing such heinous acts of violence that the public would think Al Qaeda was responsible. Comments show that targets included  US President George Bush, who was reported to be considering visiting New Zealand after APEC in Australia in late 2007: “Why you want to go and focus on Mr Bush for?… I’ll wanna go back and get my .308 and shoot the c… – shoot him in the f…… head.”

John Key was also considered a target: “Just go to Parliament… Get someone to assassinate the Prime Minister, the new one, next year’s one. Just been in office for five days, bang… Yeah John Key… Just drop a bomb… Just wait ’til he visits somewhere and just blow them. They won’t even find you.”

Another target was ‘Pakeha’. They talked about “it being a good thing to kill Pakeha to get them used to killing” and “the day coming when Pakeha will be kicked off their farms.”

They not only planned to use firearms, but rocket launchers, Molotov cocktails and napalm as well. Their strategy was to be so violent and brutal it would divide the country: “What do you reckon the best strategy is? … revolution that goes on across a specific area, you know set up a strategic bombing campaign… Tuhoe wouldn’t have popular support for a bombing campaign in New Zealand as a whole… It would in Tuhoe though… What about if we did a bombing campaign that blew up Waihopai spy base, power dams, gas facilities, TV stations and radios… It’s a strategy that gonna be f….. urban warfare… Strategy will divide, will divide Aotearoa… extreme violence, and extreme f…… actions too.”

During the period of the investigation, eight quasi-military training camps were held although intercepted communications indicated that the camps had been operating for two years and that over 100 recruits had been through them. Some of the video surveillance footage that was taken at a camp by the Police, was shown to the jury – it can be viewed here>>>

While the behaviours of these activists is extraordinary in the New Zealand context, in most other countries terrorism is a real threat and is dealt with extremely seriously. The question is whether the Police over-reacted. Should they have simply dismissed the activities of these activists as playground nonsense?

The answer to that is NO. The Police have a responsibility to take any threats of death and public harm seriously, and we would indeed expect them to do so.

In spite of the serious nature of the charges, and the danger to Police in trying to arrest fanatics who were likely to possess weapons and had been engaged in para-military training, media reports have been dominated by accusations of extremism and racism against the Police. There is even a concerted campaign to try to force the Police to compensate the local Ruatoki community where the training camps had been held and where a number of the participants lived, for the so-called trauma caused by the Police raids. This is in spite of evidence given at the trial that elders in the valley were afraid and did not think the Police had over-reacted.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is former MP and lawyer Stephen Franks, who followed the case closely and welcomed the sentencing of the Urewera four. In his article Sensible sentencing of Urewera four, he explains:

“The defendants have been treated with great fairness and generosity by the New Zealand legal system:

  • the Crown unilaterally dropped charges (on a legal technicality)
  • blanket court suppression withheld damning phone interceptions and recorded conversations in buildings and cars
  • they were able to avoid answering or accounting for themselves in any way,
  • the could make excuses late and  then only via unsworn propositions advanced by their lawyers
  • the jury whilst apparently not accepting those excuses (or it would have had to acquit on the Arms Act charges as well) nevertheless could not reach a verdict on the more serious charges
  • the Crown decision not to retry
  • all this funded by $millions in public legal aid

“There is no moral victory for the offenders and their dupes.  Refusing to account for yourself, whilst having your lawyers put forward hilarious explanations of innocence and fighting strenuously to suppress contrary evidence is not a heroic stance.  That is just busy lawyers exploiting an accommodating legal system.”

This case should act as a warning to our country’s political leaders that hard-core anti-establishment activism is gaining momentum – aided by naive politicians and a largely compliant media that these days appears less inclined than it once was to question perception and uncover the truth.

I will leave the last words to the Police Commissioner, who in response to a call by the media on Q+A for him to apologise for the actions of the Police said, “Absolutely no apology for the investigation. Absolutely no apology for the arrests. Absolutely no apology for the prosecution. And I stand by the officers. The people who were responsible for Operation Eight should, in fact, be considering an apology for the shame that they brought on the Ureweras.”