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Waihopai Three Trial Focuses Peace Activists

Waihopai Three Trial Focuses Peace Activists

Report and Images by Carey Davies

The scene in the packed public gallery of Wellington District Court resembled an anti-war rally yesterday, with friends and supporters of three Christian peace activists facing charges for deflating a radar dome at the Waihopai monitoring station in 2008 turning up from as far away as Australia to show their support.

The trial has become a focus for anti-war Christians, who have organised a week of solidarity events to coincide with the trial. At a public meeting last night, around 150 heard Green MP Keith Locke and anti-bases campaigner Murray Horton declare their support for the protesters.

The three defendants Father Peter Murnane - a Dominican Friar - Sam Land and Adrian "Adi" Leason - a teacher- are facing charges of intentional damage and entering a property with intent to commit a crime.

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Peace protestors holding hands in Park near the American Embassy

A vigil is also being staged outside the British High commission daily, while a shrine containing images of Christian saints and martyrs has been constructed in a park near Hobson Street.

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Shrine with memorials to dead Iraqis (1)

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Shrine with memorials to dead Iraqis (2)

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Shrine with memorials to dead Iraqis (3)

A lively all-ages crowd gathered early for the trial Wednesday, and it was soon standing room only when the court was opened to the public after a short period of legal discussion.

Many of those present had travelled to Wellington as part of congregations and religious communities based in the diverse corners of New Zealand each defendant is from. A group of over 20 had travelled down from the Hokianga, the home of defendant Sam Land. Others had made the journey from Auckland and the South Island.

"This was the perfect example of non-violent direction action," said blogger/reporter and peace campaigner Bryan Law, who has been imprisoned five times in his native Austrialia for his activism work, including swimming in front of US warships in his home town of Cairns.

The three defendants in this week's trial are part of a peace network called 'Ploughshares', whose activists stage non-violent acts of 'direct action' to disrupt the functioning of military bases and hardware, citing the Bible as inspiration for their actions.

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Bryan Law - Blogger/Reporter/Ploughshares Campaigner

"The point is reinforced if you take material action," said Mr Law. "If 1% of people who protested against the Iraq war in 2003 took material action do you think that war would have happened? We want to show people what they can accomplish."

"The facility at Waihopai was surrounded by three barriers including a 40,000 volt electric fence. There were security guards, CCTV cameras and alarm systems, but they got in anyway."

The three claim that the Waihopai base is an intelligence-gathering facility which was helping to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at their time of their actions. Their hopes and those of their supporters are pinned on the defence that because the war on Iraq was illegal, their action was necessary to prevent an illegal action.

Defendant Adi Leason said in court yesterday: "On the surface when three people break into a facility that's not theirs, usually there would not be a lot of controversy around their guilt. But we're saying we saved a life that we saved a life. That's what we achieved."

Leason also claimed the action was a 'Kiwi' thing to do: "I think defence of another person is what we do. I think it is human and it is natural. And it's Kiwi. As a New Zealander who was born in this city, I think that part of being a Kiwi is going to the defence of someone else."

But not all observers are impressed with the argument. One commenter on said: "After their burglary they maliciously damaged property that didn't belong to them. They didn't deflate a dome, they damaged/destroyed it by cutting it.

"I'm looking forward to their trial and convictions, preferably with some jail time."

Another commented: "I'll cut my neighbours fence down, kick his front door in and rip up his couch – but I'll say I did it for the right reasons!"

The protesters respond to these arguments by claiming they accept the consequences of the actions they take. Bryan Law said: "The idea is that you are so convinced this is the right thing to do you choose to be accountable to the political system of a country and the people who live in it.

"The protesters gave the key to the facility's front gate to the police to make it easier for them to come and arrest them. When they finished deflating the domes they sat down and prayed.

"One of the defendants has put everything he has on the line: his farm, and his teaching career he has held for 27 years."

"We're all fallible human beings and we can only do what we think is right."

The inspiration for Ploughshares is taken from a passage in the Bible: "They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4.)

"We are trying to make that prophecy come true," said Bryan.

In a park near Hobson Street a shrine was erected containing images of Saints and important figures in the radical Catholic Worker movement, whose followers made up a large proportion of the people present to support the defendants.

Jim Consedine is a Catholic priest who had travelled up from the South Island with his brother to be present at the trial.

"This is a historic case for New Zealand. In my memory there has never been a case in this country where systematically the defendants have sought to highlight the principles of international law and religion."

There have been cases in other countries where environmental activists and anti-war campaigners have been cleared after carrying out wrecking actions.

In January 2001, two anti-nuclear activists who admitted plotting to disarm one of Britain's Trident submarine fleet were cleared when the jury accepted the defendants' claim that they were upholding international law.

And in May 2007 two activists were cleared of conspiring to cause criminal damage at an RAF base in Gloucestershire, England. They had cut through a perimeter fence with bolt cutters and had tried to sabotage B-52 bombers at the start of the Iraq war, and successfully claimed they were trying to prevent war crimes.

Yesterday the protesters received a message of support from the Reverand Dr Anthony Dancer, social justice commissioner of the Anglican Church. It read: "The Anglican Church has committed itself to pursuing non-violence and building peace at the highest level.

"The practice of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience has a strong history in this country and beyond – from protests at Waitangi, resistance of American nuclear submarines entering NZ, opposing the Springbok tour for example. Anglican involvement in these actions has been significant."

The trial continues.

See also Bryan Law's reports from the first three days of the trial:
- Day One of the Waihopai Ploughshares trial
- Waihopai Ploughares Trial: Day Two
- Waihopai Ploughshares Trial: Day Three


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