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.