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John Minto: The Police Have Already Lost The Case

The Police Have Already Lost The Case

Opinion - By John Minto.

Last night I saw the film Operation 8: Deep in the forest about the now infamous Urewera terror raids. It tells the story from the defendants point of view and as well as being a very good film, it's a welcome contribution to public debate about the case and associated police action.

The18 Urewera defendants were arrested in October 2007 in dramatic dawn raids amid claims of terrorism but irrespective of the outcome of the coming trial, scheduled to start late May, the police have already lost the case. The public knows former Police Commissioner Howard Broad wildly over-reacted to the goings on in the forest near Ruatoki where political activists were engaged in skill-building activities. What remains is a face-saving farce where the police attempt to salvage minor firearms convictions from the wreckage from their fevered imaginings.

State agencies have now closed ranks to protect the remnants of the police case with the December High Court decision, confirmed last month by the Court of Appeal, to disallow a trial by jury for the defendants.

This decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court and will be heard next month but in the meantime the reasons for the judge-only trial are suppressed. Speculation elsewhere suggests the complexity of the charges, the difficulty in keeping a jury together for three months and possible protests outside the court are likely to have influenced the decision. None of these stand scrutiny.

Every week complex murder and fraud cases are heard by juries and long jury trials, while difficult for jury members, are relatively rare. Protests outside the court are inevitable and should be expected in cases such as this which have strong political overtones.

Whatever the reasons, the decision to remove the defendants' right to trial by jury is a travesty. Such a high profile, controversial trial should be heard by a jury. A group of 12 citizens should weigh the evidence, listen to the defendants and give a considered judgment.

The police know their case is weak and an acquittal would undermine public confidence in their judgment around issues of protest and the democratic right to dissent which are at the heart of the case. Their case will rest largely on minor technical legal breaches of the law on which a judge is more likely to convict. They don't want to risk a jury trial because juries tend to acquit when they see technical breaches of the law and convict on deliberate, premeditated violations of the law.

A jury is more likely to give the most dispassionate verdict on the charges and the best chance for justice for the defendants. It's important the appeal to the Supreme Court succeeds.

One reason for the weak police case is they expected to find lots of guns across the properties they searched on October 15 2006. They seized just a couple of old pig hunting rifles in a Bay of Plenty house - an area where such rifles are a dime a dozen as families hunt in the Urewera to put food on the table. The police are left with a case based largely on technical breaches of firearms laws which in the normal course of police work would have resulted in a verbal warning from a middle ranking officer.

In the background to the case the slashing of civil liberties by successive governments, which led to the Urewera case being played out the way it has, is continuing. Since 2001 at least 11 laws have been passed which restrict civil liberties and expand the power of the state agencies (Police, Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau) to intrude in our lives. These include:

    · Terrorism Suppression Act (2002)

    · Government Communications Security Bureau Act (2003)

    · Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act (2003)

    · Crimes Amendment Act (2003)

    · Counter-Terrorism Bill (2003)

    · Border Security Bill (2003)

    · Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act (2004)

    · Maritime Security Act (2004)

    · Identity (Citizenship and Travel Documents) Bill (2004)

    · Aviation Security Amendment Bill (2006)

    · Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill (2007)

    (I'll post more details of these laws later this week)

Two further laws are in the pipeline being considered by parliament now - another SIS Amendment Bill to increases the agency's ability to spy on New Zealanders and a new Search and Surveillance Bill to extends spy powers to a raft of other state agencies.

Alongside the new legislation has been many tens of millions in extra funding for the police to investigate terrorism despite this country not being a terrorist target. Unlike the UK and Australia which joined the invasion of Iraq and which subsequently suffered terror attacks - in Bali and the London transport system - New Zealand has not been in the spotlight.

Despite this we have followed those countries in enacting a wide range of legislation which has cut away at our civil rights and has led to the hounding of a group of political activists in the botched Urewera case.

Back in October 2007 I sat through the bail application hearing for one of the accused, Rongomai Bailey, and was left open-mouthed at the shear hopelessness of the police case against him. Here was a man who had never touched a weapon in his life on a list the police wanted to charge with terrorism. He was later discharged on all charges but if you google his name - or the names of any of the other accused - the police allegations of terrorism are there. This is a burden reckless police action has hoisted on his young shoulders for the rest of his life.

The police should have been concerned at reports of guns and training in the Urewera. They should have sent in community constables to find out what was going on early in the piece, spoken to everyone involved and issued the warnings to be expected if there had been technical breaches of firearms legislation. Instead these newly empowered, richly resourced, anti-terror police set up a long-term surveillance operation at enormous expense and waited 18 months before acting.

18 people are bearing an enormous burden from this feckless police investigation. All have faced almost four years of deep distress. If this is not a situation of "justice delayed is justice denied" then I can't imagine what would be. The burden should be lifted, the charges dropped and the trial abandoned. In its place should be a hearing to decide compensation for the years of distress the case has brought to these political activists and their families.

In the meantime watch out for the film when it comes to a cinema or DVD store near you.

© Scoop Media

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