Almost four and a half years since police dramatically arrested 18 people, claiming connections to weapons-training camps in the eastern Bay of Plenty and citing the Terrorism Suppression Act, yesterday brought a ruling in the Auckland High Court for the “Urewera Four” - the quartet who were eventually charged.
They were found guilty of a number of firearms charges, but on the more significant lead charges, relating to belonging to an organised criminal group, the jury reported that it was unable to reach a verdict.
“Whatever way you look at it,” writes Morgan Godfery at Maui Street, “this is an epic defeat for the Crown.”
Thousands of man hours, millions of dollars and the might of the New Zealand government could not bring down a bunch of pohara Maori and Pakeha activists. Tame Iti is now further entrenched in Maori mythology and rightly so.
The government and police ought now to apologise to Tuhoe, says Godfery:
Ruatoki was attacked, and I deliberately use the word attacked, as school buses were searched by armed police, kaumatua and kuia were illegally detained, men and women were manhandled and mistreated all for a few firearm charges. Charges that are so remote from what the police were alleging. It’s a sorry affair.
The Maori party deserves credit, Godfery adds, for their response over the course of the last four-and-a-half years.
Pita Sharples was right, at least in respect of Tuhoe, when he said the raids set race relations back 100 years.
While we could yet see a retrial on the organised criminal group charges, “the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless”, writes Lew Stoddart at Kiwi Politico.
The last four and a half years had seen charges fall away, evidence dismissed, underhand tactics, dubious leaks, and trial by media, he writes -
and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.
Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing Tāme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of Māori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005.
“Talk of a retrial is out of the question, surely,” says Gordon Campbell at Scoop. “This is just the Crown trying to save face, and beating the most dignified retreat it can manage in the circumstances.”
A retrial would be an offence to natural justice, given the extensive time consumed by such a process, argues Campbell. The performance of the jury, meanwhile – and remember that the defendants were originally denied a jury trial – was a vindication of the jury system.
When the Urewera episode is considered alongside the Ahmed Zaoui case – another post-9/11 controversy in which “authorities leapt to the wrong initial conclusion, and then spent a vast amount of time and resources trying to make those wrong assumptions sound credible” – there is a clear lesson to be drawn, Campbell writes:
Give the authorities wide and sweeping powers to combat terrorism without putting in place proper checks and balances, and you can bet that over-excited officers in the field will use those powers. Head office will then close ranks and use any means to justify the initial dumb premises.
“These guys weren’t heroes and they weren’t terrorists. They were dickheads,” writes Russell Brown of the defendants at Public Address.
Indeed, no one emerges from the episode with much to admire, says Brown. The police had proven themselves fools, too, getting wrapped up in their own histrionic narrative and bungling the collection of evidence. And as for the media:
The news media – and the Dominion Post in particular – should also ruminate on the extent to which they were worked by their police sources in 2007. The craziest, most inflammatory claims were blown up and stripped of context, serving the interest of policemen who probably already knew their case had some problems.
Brown – who concedes that he, too, had not always got it right in his posts on the subject over the years – concludes:
It’s time for an end. The police should swallow their pride and decline to re-try the serious charges. They could say that the evidence has has been put before the public, which can reach its own conclusions. They could seek to fetch back the original, widely-leaked affidavit from Wikileaks-land, so the full picture is evident. But whatever else, they should acknowledge that it’s time to move on.