Remember the dramatic events of October 15th 2007?
Remember the co-ordinated dawn raids up and down the country; the smashing of windows and doors; the parents and kids forced to kneel at gunpoint; the lockdown of Ruatoki; the police “ninja’s” at the roadblock on the Tuhoe confiscation line; the 17 arrested activists being paraded before the courts?
Remember the dramatic police media conference at lunchtime that day when they revealed with breathless excitement they had arrested home-grown terrorists and foiled terrorist plans?
Remember all that?
In the Auckland High Court yesterday afternoon it all boiled down to a handful of convictions of four people for technical breaches of the Arms Act. That was it. So after many millions spent during 18 months of surveillance, more millions spent on the prosecution and following 30,000 pages of evidence the police bagged a small number of minor convictions on what one of the defence lawyers described as “holding changes”.
On the more serious charge of being a member of an organised criminal group the jury could not reach even a 10 to one majority verdict (there were 11 jurors).
The firearms convictions were to be expected. The law is worded such that one must have a “lawful purpose” to even hold a gun. The onus is therefore on the person to show they have such a purpose but with the decision of each defendant not to give evidence themselves they gave these convictions to the police. Even so almost half those charges were tossed out in any case.
In the normal course of police work such technical breaches of the Arms Act would have resulted in a police warning – certainly never a high court trial. The most the police could claim from this trial would be half a wooden spoon.
The public have accepted from very early on that this police operation was at best a substantial overreaction to the Urewera training camps. In fact from the very first day the police case began to unravel because only a couple of pig-hunting rifles were found during the initial raids. Just think how the police would have proudly paraded for the TV cameras any arsenal of guns or Molotov cocktails if these had been found. But they found none. They didn’t exist except in the fevered imaginations of over-resourced police tasked with finding terrorists.
A few weeks later the police failed to get approval from the Solicitor General to lay charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. The evidence didn’t justify such charges. Then most of the evidence the police had collected was found to have been illegally gathered anyway and rendered inadmissible in court on the arms charges. Most of the prosecutions had to be abandoned so with the whole case under threat the police introduced a new charge against five defendants – being a member of an organised criminal group – and then successfully argued at the Supreme Court that because this was such a serious charge it justified allowing them to use their illegally obtained evidence on the arms charges as well.
So it’s ironic that the convictions on the arms charges resulted from illegally obtained evidence while the jury did not convict on the more serious charge which was used to justify the police introducing their illegal evidence in the first place.
Having so comprehensively failed at each key point in the case the police nevertheless stooped, in a particularly nasty and vindictive move at the end of the trial, to oppose bail for the four defendants. Another fail.
For the past four years this case has been not about terrorism or keeping the public safe but about how the police can salvage something from the wreckage of their blind misjudgement. If they do decide to prosecute again on the main charge then it will be to continue to try and save some face from this so public debacle.
The best advice is the oldest advice – when you’re in a hole – stop digging.
It’s important to remember that we have before parliament right now another piece of legislation to extend the powers of police and state agencies to search and spy on New Zealanders. Make no mistake – political activists will be the target as they were in this case.
The best outcome of this shambles would be a sceptical, critical public which refuses to give up important freedoms to a state which has the capacity to abuse them so appallingly.
The government should abandon its Search and Surveillance Bill.