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.