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Police And Political Protest - Aziz Choudry

It would be nice to believe that the New Zealand Police are politically neutral. Then perhaps we could dismiss their heavy-handed operations during Jiang Zemin's visit as isolated, albeit unfortunate instances of overkill which momentarily suspended some people's freedoms of expression and rights to dissent. But are they?

Parallels can be drawn with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's excessive tactics towards nonviolent anti-APEC protests in Vancouver in 1997. Official documents implicated the Canadian Prime Minister's office in assurances made to then Indonesian President Suharto that he would be shielded from politically embarrassing protests. At home much has been made of whether or not Jenny Shipley or her officials directed police to act to spare any political embarrassment to the Chinese Premier.

In New Zealand, as in Canada, some commentators have sought to establish a connection between the crackdown on demonstrations and the demands and expectations of foreign officials involved with a state visit of a leader of an Asian nation with a dubious human rights record. But this tends to assume that New Zealand police take an otherwise balanced view of protest actions, and generally respect people's rights to freedom of speech and non-violent protest.

Rather, behind the vivid images of attempts to shut down the pro-Tibet protests lies a disturbing mindset and operational culture within parts of the Police which frequently equates challenges to prevailing political and economic orthodoxies with criminal activity.

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While their operations relate partly to narcotics and vice, the Police's Criminal Intelligence Service (CIS) also monitors political activities which the Police consider may involve a breach of the criminal law - though how such activities are assessed is anybody's guess.

The CIS conducts similar surveillance operations to the Security Intelligence Service and there is strong liaison between them. It falls outside of the definition of intelligence agency which applies to the SIS and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). This was pointed out during the two recent amendments to the SIS legislation, but nothing was done. Yet for many years, the CIS has clearly granted itself a broad mandate to collect information on people on the basis of their political beliefs and sympathies, and views formed by police intelligence officers. Their work in this area seems to have much in common with political elements in police forces elsewhere in the world which routinely monitor, harass, and criminalise legitimate political organisers and activities.

By deeming many groups and individuals as having a sufficient propensity to commit criminal offences on the basis of their perceived political views and affiliations, the CIS is contributing towards the criminalisation of dissent in New Zealand. In turn, this encourages frontline police to exercise contempt and a cavalier disregard towards people's rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

In May, two dozen unions, academics, religious and political leaders called on the same justice and electoral select committee which has examined police handling of the Free Tibet protests to hold an inquiry into the CIS's role in targeting political organisations and activists.

This followed the High Court case brought by Canterbury academic David Small against the Police, where CIS officers admitted photographing participants at a fundraising quiz night and peaceful demonstrations, watching my home and workplace, and monitoring attendance at meetings on social justice concerns. They had actively assisted in covering up a bungled and illegal SIS break-in of my house. One CIS officer claimed that Dr Small had first come to his attention in the 1980s through writing articles about Pacific independence issues - hardly evidence of potential criminality.

Canadian activist and writer, Jaggi Singh, warns: "Anti-APEC campaigners in New Zealand, Canada and beyond have argued for several years that police state tactics in response to dissent are predictable. They are a foreseeable outcome of unabashed free market policies which rely on uncritical, sanitised public relations spectacles such as APEC or fawning state visits by Jiang Zemin or Clinton. Even in countries like Canada and New Zealand, which have pretensions about the importance of free speech and expression, the bottom-line dynamics of corporate globalisation push aside trivialities like open and effective dissent."

Select committee criticism of last September's police operations is welcome. Redrafting police policy on demonstrations may be a step in the right direction. But it is high time there was scrutiny of the broader, ongoing role of the Police's Criminal Intelligence Service in targetting political organisations and activists.

The previous government, with Labour backing, greatly expanded SIS powers. The current government proposes to further expand SIS, GCSB and Police powers to snoop on emails. In doing so it is sidestepping some serious, uncomfortable questions about these agencies' roles in collecting information on and carrying out surveillance of domestic dissenters. If they cannot distinguish between lawful political activism and criminal activity in the real world, they certainly cannot be trusted to do so in cyberspace.

Aziz Choudry works for GATT Watchdog.


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