Police rules ride roughshod over right to protest

Most of us are used to thinking of the police as politically neutral. We expect them to apply the law without fear or favour irrespective of political views.

This is a quaint idea because the police role is always acutely political. They support the political status quo and because of this they rarely have positive relationships with protest groups. Their attitude to protest ranges from pained tolerance to outright hostility.

Last week, the Police Complaints Authority released its report into the police handling of a protest by Free Tibet supporters outside the hotel where the Chinese President Jiang Zemin was attending a function in 1999. Yes, 1999. It has taken eight years for the PCA to complete its investigation.

The report shows that Chinese officials met the Wellington area police commander before the visit, where these officials were insistent police ensure their president neither see nor hear the protesters.

The commander said he would take what steps he could lawfully take to meet their request, although he said he told them that protest was allowed in New Zealand provided it was lawful and orderly.

Unbelievably, he then issued instructions to his staff that police should “make every effort to minimise the impact of protest”. They certainly did.

The result on the day was that the police suppressed a peaceful, lawful protest and illegally interfered with the very rights of New Zealanders they were sworn to uphold.

At one point police officers physically stood on Tibetan flags to prevent them being waved while the president’s motorcade drove past. Outside the hotel they used buses to screen off the protests and when Chinese officials said the protest could still be seen and heard the police moved in, told the protesters they were causing an obstruction (they weren’t), closed the road (without legal authority) and proceeded to push and shove the protesters 100 metres down the street away from the hotel.

Just for good measure they arrested five of the protest group.

It was a case of the “feelings” of a foreign dignitary taking precedence over the rights of New Zealanders to protest for human rights.

Eight years later and the PCA concluded police actions against the protest group were unjustified but went on to say there was no evidence police acted under political direction. This is nonsense. What the PCA means is that the police were not acting under political direction from New Zealand politicians. However, they were most certainly acting under the political direction of Chinese government officials.

Whenever similar scenarios are played out in China, the Western media is quick to point to heavy-handed actions of the Chinese police in suppressing dissent. In fact, suppressing dissent is stock in trade for the police worldwide.

Almost by definition, the police are there to support the status quo, whether in so-called communist China or so-called democratic New Zealand.

The most disturbing feature of the whole saga is that the PCA report was delayed to give the police time to amend their general instructions relating to demonstrations and VIP security planning.

PCA head Justice Goddard says she waited for the updates to be completed in a way acceptable to her before releasing the report. In other words, to give police time to cover their butts before the PCA’s muted criticism was delivered.

So how have the guidelines been changed to reflect the lessons learnt by the police from this anti- democratic fiasco?

The new instructions say protesters can be removed from the sight of visiting dignitaries if the protest behaviour is disorderly, or personally offensive and humiliating to the visitors.

Hang on a minute – isn’t this what the police did in 1999? Isn’t this precisely what they have been criticised for? It’s obvious they’ve learnt nothing from the whole, sorry affair. They have simply changed their own rules to give better justification for using the same anti-democratic power-play next time.

The purpose of protest is often to embarrass or humiliate political figures because of the policies they follow. And why not? Whether it’s a South African foreign minister during the apartheid era, an American vice-president during the Vietnam war or a Chinese president responsible for gross human rights violations, they deserve to be subject to protest. They deserve every bit of humiliation they receive and we should expect New Zealand police to uphold the rights of New Zealand citizens to deliver it.

The PCA and the Minister of Police agree with the new police rules to suppress protest. Nothing has changed for the better except perhaps that it is clearer than ever that the PCA is more a police lapdog than a public watchdog. It should be closed and replaced by a genuinely independent body which can curb the anti-democratic political tendencies of the police.

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Whatever happened to giving the accused a fair go?

Oh how lucky we are! Brave media outlets have cast aside the demons denying our right to know. They have published the facts and now we know the truth. Those dreadful protestors were up to murder and mayhem and the police have saved us all from terror and tyranny.

It sounds like a good story, but like most fairytales it’s a fanciful concoction.

The police were clearly upset at the decision of the Solicitor-General to refuse to approve the laying of anti-terror charges against those arrested in paramilitary raids last month.

Police Commissioner Howard Broad politely said he was disappointed, but having staked their reputation on the raids the police were keen to show a sceptical public their actions were justified. The leaks followed within a day but were not published until The Press and its sister paper, the Dominion Post, went to print five days later.

So having failed through legal channels, the leaks paved the way for trial by media.

Despite there being not enough evidence to justify the laying of anti-terror charges, the Dominion Post headlined its selective reportingas The Terrorist Files.

The excited shock-horror reporting that followed reaches a new low for democracy. Firstly, because of the abuse of the right to a fair trial for those arrested, and secondly because of the blatantly misleading information presented to the public.

Ironically, the public are probably further from the truth now than they were a month ago.

The material reported was taken from long, rambling conversations between a small number of the 17 arrested. Key phrases were carefully selected and presented out of context in the most damaging way possible. We were supposed to be shocked and stunned.

The threat to declare war on New Zealand and many of the other quotes so breathlessly reported are classic stupidity and coming from the person they do they are more sad than serious.

Likewise, anyone in court who heard the context and discussion of the so-called threat to assassinate George W. Bush would not have recognised it as the serious threat it was reported to be in newspapers and on television. Similarly with the other so-called threats.

Remember, too, that how a person says something tells a lot about what they mean by it. None of this comes with the titillating tidbits.

The media would have done a much better job if they had printed all of each conversation to give at least a minimal amount of context and it would become clear that these had no more substance than the idle threats made against Helen Clark, John Key or George Bush in homes around the country every night during the TV news.

There never was a credible terror threat or real threat to life, and no amount of carefully selective reporting will change that. The police were wrong in their analysis and wrong in their conclusions.

The people branded as terrorists from day one have now been pilloried by sections of the media as terrorists all over again.

Far from providing accurate, balanced material, the public have been shamefully treated by this titillating presentation of misleading information.

Probably the nadir of the whole sorry saga came with a TV reporter in Wellington who tried to cross- examine one of the defendants as they took part in the hikoi protest outside Parliament.

Someone in our office suggested the episode smacked of the goings-on

in the McCarthyist witch-hunts in America in the 1950s. It’s hard to disagree.

And where were our politicians while all this carry-on was dominating the news? Not a single Labour or National MP or minister spoke out clearly for the rights of those arrested to have a fair trial. The Prime Minister feigned concern but her heart wasn’t in it. There was no room for leadership – the most important priority was not to look weak in the war against terror.

And who is to decide if contempt of court action will be taken against those who breached the right to a fair trial? According to the Solicitor-General, it will be the police who make this decision. In other words, we shouldn’t expect too much to happen too quickly.

Looking ahead, the publication of material from the police raids and its misuse by some media and politicians underlines the dreadful dangeri nherent in the new police powers of surveillance. How many of us would be confident that if the police bugged all our conversationsfor a year they couldn’t produce similar damaging highlights?

We do need an independent inquiry into police operation and the releaseof all surveillance information. But this can only occur after the evidence is tested in court and the accused have had the opportunity to present their side of the story. It’s called giving people a fair go.

A true monumental blunder

The police decision to raise the spectre of terrorism over the 17 people arrested on October 15 was a monumental blunder.

It has blighted the lives of those arrested, who will forever suffer the lingering taint of terrorism. Their families and friends have been through hell and back, whole communities have been traumatised and the threat to civil liberties has been pulsating in the foreground.

This was the state forces flexing their muscles and parading their new powers. It was a hopelessly misguided attempt at saying me too as they tried to engage with the war on terror here at home.

There are no winners from the Solicitor-General’s decision not to approve terrorism charges. We are all losers and have been from day one.

It seems clear that at the heart of the problem is the police prioritising catching terrorists rather than keeping the community safe.

There is no dispute police had serious concerns at what was happening in the Urewera for the past 15 months. But instead of dealing with the issue when it arose they chose to lie low and launch a massive surveillance operation which resulted in two and two adding to five.

It is incredulous in a small country such as New Zealand that the eclectic mix of political activists, environmentalists, Maori sovereignty campaigners, pacifists and vegans could pose a credible terrorist threat. I still cannot understand why those briefed by the Security Intelligence Service and the police didn’t ask if the emperor had clothes.

In his decision the Solicitor-General blames unworkable and incoherent law for his decision not to approve charges and it’s not surprising the law doesn’t work. It is George Bush’s law transposed into the middle of New Zealand with little thought. It was brought in back in 2002 when Labour was keen to be seen to be tough on terrorism. But rather than simply apply the United Nations requirements that we act against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States, the Government went the whole way and bought into the levels of paranoia and fear-mongering associated with the internal politics of other countries. Our politicians acted as though we had potential terrorist cells in every suburb.

Several pieces of legislation have been added since to increase the powers of surveillance and approve big budgets for the police and SIS and their anti-terror work. The latest bill is due back in parliament tomorrow where the Prime Minister will be given additional powers to designate terrorist entities with the courts sidelined from the process. We don’t need these laws and we never did. Even when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland harbour by French agents in 1987 and killed one person, our existing laws were more than enough to act against the bombers. But while a bad law may be part of the reason for the Solicitor-General’s decision, it surely doesn’t tell the whole story.

It was clear early on that despite the low threshold for defining terrorism under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 the police would struggle to get a successful prosecution. Even in the home of so-called terrorist surveillance, the US, successful prosecutions for terrorist offences amount to just 10 per cent of those charged.

It seems clear the police believed that the raids they conducted on October 15 would uncover a good deal more evidence than had already been gained through the heavy levels of surveillance. This turned out to be not the case. They then dropped five of the 17 from their terrorist list and sought prosecution for the other 12. Having branded the operation an anti-terror operation they could hardly not refer any cases on. The Solicitor-General realised the problem with the law but would also have been well aware of the wider difficulties. This could easily become another long, slow, humiliating defeat in the making. There was the prospect of the Ahmed Zaoui fiasco being repeated 12 times over. The writing was on the wall. Pulling the plug now was the safest option.

From the outset there was widespread public scepticism about the police operation and the likely strength of their case. Only one-third of the public instinctively backed the police action. Most reserved their judgment. Groups associated with those arrested have staunchly opposed the use of the anti-terror laws and called for their repeal. Had those arrested been cut adrift as some on the Left suggested I have no doubt that public sympathy would have been exhausted and the anti-terror laws would have been invoked, incoherent as they were.

The political climate in which judges, juries and Solicitors-General make decisions is always a significant and sometimes the most important factor.

It was a wise decision of the Solicitor-General and made in the public interest. For the families the worst of the nightmare is over. The rest is at least manageable.

New Zealand’s anti-terror laws are those of George Bush

Prime Minister Helen Clark has decided the people arrested in the so-called “terrorist raids” are guilty. Never mind the evidence. Never mind a fair trial. Never mind being innocent until being proven guilty. Helen Clark says she knows.

Last Monday, she said those arrested were “… people who at the very least have illicitly used firearms, constructed Molotov cocktails and trained themselves how to use napalm …”

The following day she was asked why she had made these comments before the courts had heard the cases. She responded, “I wouldn’t have said it if I’d thought it was inappropriate.”

In polite language this is prejudicial to these people getting a fair trial. More accurately it is an arrogant abuse of these Kiwis’ rights under New Zealand law.

Her comments appear to be based on information from a Security Intelligence Service briefing she received the previous week. She is entitled to her opinion based on what the spies told her, but she is not entitled to prejudice the right of anyone to a fair trial. Coming from the most senior public figure in New Zealand, her comments are all the more reprehensible. She used her prime ministerial position to encourage public condemnation of those arrested.

We are used to statements such as these from tin-pot dictators across the globe, where the verdict has been decided before what passes for a trial is held. Just a day or so later a radio bulletin reported comments by an African leader saying that a group of foreigners alleged to have been trying to traffic children would receive a trial and would then get the punishment they deserved. Spot the difference with Helen Clark.

This is the same Prime Minister who wants the power to alone decide if a person or organisation is a terrorist entity. Currently the High Court reviews these prime ministerial decisions every three years. However, the proposed new law, the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill 2007, removes the oversight of the High Court. The prime minister would become judge and jury.

Helen Clark’s behaviour last week emphasises the enormous danger in granting the prime minister, or any prime minister in the future, this unfettered power.

And it’s not just her cavalier attitude to these arrestees. What’s more worrying is having the proposed power residing in one person who is far more open to political pressure than are our courts. It takes just a phone call from the SIS or a foreign embassy to the prime minister’s office to get what they want. With the court oversight there is at least the semblance of an impartial hearing.

Where would Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui be today if the Prime Minister had had this power before? He would have been buried under SIS printouts from Right-wing United States websites and he would never have seen the light of day in New Zealand.

Other safeguards would also be removed by the proposed bill. At the moment we accept United Nations designations of terrorists “in the absence of evidence to the contrary”. This safeguard would be removed, meaning a New Zealander could be automatically designated a terrorist even if we had compelling evidence it was untrue.

A third safeguard to be removed relates to New Zealanders supporting liberation struggles, democracy and human rights. Currently the law says support for groups is acceptable “for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights”. The new bill would remove this safeguard so that if this law had been in place in 1981 it would have been illegal to provide support for the African National Congress in the fight against apartheid or for campaigns to have Nelson Mandela released from jail. It could easily also be used against New Zealanders supporting Palestinian groups such as Hamas, despite it being democratically elected to power in the occupied territory of Palestine.

The parent bill, the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, should also be abandoned. It has a catch-all definition for a terrorist as someone who, for political reasons, causes “serious disruption to an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life”.

Again 1981 provides a valid reference point. The proposed new law would have meant many of the civil disobedience protests from 1981 could have been classed as “terrorist activities”. Actions such as the 40 people sitting on Rotorua airport runway, the invasion of the pitch in Hamilton and the blocking of the Auckland harbour bridge could all easily qualify. These anti-terror laws are George Bush’s laws. They were never designed for New Zealand. Helen Clark last week gave us a timely reminder of how much we don’t need them.