‘Anti-terror’ raids leave a battered democracy in their wake

On Tuesday last week, Rongomai Bailey appeared in the Auckland District Court to seek bail. He was one of the 17 arrested in paramilitary dawn raids the previous week as part of the police “anti-terror” swoop. Seven police officers had arrived at his home at 6am and arrested him on firearms charges.

He’d then spent eight days in Mount Eden Prison before his bail application was heard.

The police opposed bail and were required to indicate the strength of evidence against him. It was a somewhat bizarre legal discussion which followed. It transpired the police had no admissible evidence to justify laying the arms charges. In fact, they had no direct evidence whatever that he had ever even touched a firearm of any sort. What they did have was evidence gained under surveillance which cannot be used as evidence on the arms charges.

So here was a person arrested on gun charges but then detained on evidence inadmissible under our gun laws but admissible for denying bail for charges under the gun laws. Confused? I was.

So the police proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes or so reading what they regarded as the juiciest excerpts from the surveillance transcripts. These were obtained by bugging conversations in a car on a couple of road trips.

I’d like to record here the details of these transcripts but that evidence is suppressed. Suffice to say, these conversations were nothing one wouldn’t hear on a Saturday afternoon at any gun club around New Zealand – even before the beer comes out.

It was all quite surreal. Those of us sitting in court were incredulous. The lack of substance to the evidence we heard was frankly embarrassing.

Rongomai was given bail but the bigger question of how he ever came to be arrested in the first place is utterly beyond me and I have no confidence it will ever be answered satisfactorily.

On the police action in general the feeling of New Zealanders seems to be we should just let this whole legal process play out and see what’s left after the evidence is tested in court. This seems the only sensible approach but it’s just not good enough. It leaves very difficult questions unanswered.

The police and Security Intelligence Service have conducted intensive surveillance on a wide group of people (much wider than the 17 arrested so far) for at least 15 months now and they have not yet been able to produce evidence they feel confident would constitute a credible terrorist threat to New Zealand. If they had they surely would have referred this to the Attorney-General long before now and had a decision.

The case itself will take at least 18 months to get to court and whatever the outcome, enormous damage will be done in the meantime. The New Zealand public will be softened up to accept we have terrorist threats or potential terrorist threats in the country which justify the huge additional resources given to the police and SIS since September 11, 2001. This will be seen by many to validate the existing Terrorism Suppression Act and its various amendments and the unthinking will accept even greater restrictions on our civil liberties.

This has been the pattern established by the authorities in other countries.

It seems to me the path we have started down leads only to self-fulfilling prophesies. Once additional resources are allocated to fight terrorism then the authorities must show the money is well spent. They need to find some terrorists. They thought they had when Ahmed Zaoui arrived and sought refugee status. The result was an embarrassing back-down.

It seems the latest arrests and the spectre of terrorism rise directly from the additional resourcing which has meant the threshold for investigating threats to New Zealand has been lowered to the point where groups and individuals going about the business of political activism are being targeted.

Former police inspector Ross Meurant has brought a fresh insight into how the police evaluate information they receive. He slammed the evaluations as subjective with bad judgments being self-reinforcing within a tight police culture. He is appalled at the so-called “anti-terror” raids last week.

There are few times I’d agree with this former Red Squad member but knowing several of those arrested very well I think he has hit the nail on the head.

The Government tells us the police, SIS and lawmakers are all working hand in hand to keep New Zealand safe. The truth is that our lawmakers are blindly putting in place savage attacks on civil rights, while the police and SIS are eager to test their new powers and seem excited at the prospect of at last joining the war on terror.

Left in the wake will be a badly battered democracy and decent Kiwi activists like Rongomai Bailey whose lives have been changed forever.