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Corrections criticised over 'countering extremism' programme

Corrections programme criticised for keeping tabs on potential extremists

Phil Pennington, Reporter

A small number of people who could become violent extremists are being monitored by the Corrections Department.

a view through
steel gate doors inside a prison

Corrections said it was constantly assessing risks, including of potential extremists, while prisoners were behind bars. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

But the programme that prison officials will use to deradicalise them once they are freed, called 'Countering Violent Extremism' or CVE, is controversial.

It is being spurned by some Muslims here as just another attempt to target their community as a threat, while a leading Australian academic warns New Zealand to take note of how it has alienated Muslims across the Tasman.

CVE, begun in 2015 as part of the government's wider counter-terrorism strategy, only kicks in outside of prison.

Behind bars, Corrections said it was constantly assessing risks, including of potential extremists, and including in tune with the heightened security settings post 15 March.

"At this moment in time we have assessed that a small number of individuals have the potential to be involved in violent extremism, which could include various forms of religious, right-wing and left-wing extremism, but we must always remain vigilant," Andy Milne, Deputy National Commissioner, said in a statement to RNZ.

"We are constantly assessing and reviewing the risks posed by all offenders, including those who potentially hold extremist views. This is informed by any new information or events, such as the shocking attack in Christchurch."

Mr Milne said when prisoners with extremist tendencies were identified, each got a plan tailored to their "unique risk".

Outside prison, the CVE programme involves a community forum and will try to reintegrate extremists upon their release, whether through tapping support from religious or community leaders, or calling in a Corrections psychologist or rehabilitation expert.

In Europe, where CVE originated, it has become an umbrella term for statewide non-coercive attempts to reduce involvement in terrorism, with multimillions of euros poured into it and a debate over it raging back and forth.

In New Zealand, CVE is very limited and barely tested - and rejected by researcher Faisal Al-Asaad, who refused a request to do research for the programme, saying it was fixated on radicalisation and deradicalisation, but not interested in drivers like discrimination and racism.

The aftermath of the Christchurch attacks underlined why it was wrongheaded, he said.

"[One] academic after another came out and said, 'I've been looking under the wrong rock - at Māori separatists, left-wing extremism, environmental activists'," he said.

"They reinforce this idea that the threat of radicalisation or extremism comes from all these different communities but not from fascists or white supremacists.

"We have to take seriously where the focus of research is."

Dr John Battersby of Massey's Centre for Defence and Security Studies is part of the CVE programme's community forum, and will feed into it his current research on the security agencies' perceptions of where the threats come from.

From what he knew, there was no blindspot to white extremists or bias against Muslims, he said.

"I don't think there's any bias ... I know there's been security sector concern about white extremists.

"From a research perspective and even from a security sector perspective, I don't think there's a [need for a] reset at all. What March 15 has done has really challenged the complacency of New Zealanders in terms of having to be aware that there are people out there who might just do this."

Community perceptions

A second strand of research for CVE is looking into community perceptions of the extremist threat. Two other researchers are involved: Dr Veronica Hopner from the School of Psychology at Massey University, and Nick Nelson, who works alongside Dr Battersby.

The latter believes New Zealand has a chance to avoid the flaws that CVE programmes exhibit in other countries, because this country has until now been isolated from terrorist attacks, has a tiny national security apparatus and does not have a huge "parallel" migrant community like, say, France.

"We really should have taken the lessons from what other counter-terrorist strategies have caused and try our best to avoid them," Dr Battersby said.

The CVE forum has six agencies on it: Corrections, the Police, Refugee Council, Human Rights Commission, Islamic Women's Council and the Ministry of Social Development.

It is not an intelligence-gathering group, with no state security agencies involved and none accessing information from it, Corrections said.

Not so in Australia, according to Professor Mohamad Abdalla, who heads South Australia University's Centre for Islamic Thought and Education.

It was used there to surveil the Muslim community, he said, but also to undertake a wide range of "soft" programmes that lacked genuine consultation and "rigour".

"One thing for sure, the Australian Muslim community has always felt that CVE has been fixated on Muslim radicalisation, which has overshadowed right-wing white extremists groups," he said.

"There is almost zero trust in all the CVE measures and programmes that come from the government."

New Zealand, however, with its small programme and a community forum, appeared to be making more effort to be inclusive, he said.

"Of course we need to give it a go, but learn from others' experiences."

Ironically, Muslim academics avoided CVE in Australia, but they were the only researchers who could counteract extremist ideology with mainstream Islamic ideology, he said.

Hamilton-based Islamic Women's Council representative on the CVE forum, Aliya Danzeisen, said: "I haven't seen anything that has caused me to be concerned."

"All the discussions that we have, have been about creating a model that is supportive to ensure there isn't any recidivism."

Corrections has not told RNZ how many inmates have been released under the CVE programme.

Corrections, in its own paper on CVE, notes there is little hard research globally to show it actually works.

Some research suggested it has badly stigmatised minority communities.

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