Guantanamo on the Pacific?
The arrest and detention without bail of seventeen individuals on grounds that they were planning terrorist attacks
against political targets in New Zealand represents a step towards the “Guantanomisation” of national security policy in
this country, at least as it applies to political dissent. Like the Cuban soil occupied by a US military base, the
normal rules of legal rights and due process apparently do not apply to political extremists. Evidence was collected for
more than a year by the police and SIS (and probably the GCSB), but only now are the Police Commissioner and
Solicitor-General considering whether to lay charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. Meanwhile the detainees have
been remanded without bail for two weeks on firearms charges, with all information about their cases suppressed. It
appears that the public right to know and natural justice are trumped by judicial concerns about individual privacy and
evidence secrecy. One must assume that the clear and present danger to national security and public safety posed by
these individuals is so grave that they are denied the basic right to swift justice and presumption of innocence
reserved to all others.
Let us summarise the facts of the case so far. The people arrested come from anarchist, environmental, and Maori
sovereignty groups that engage in civil disobedience via anti-status quo direct action tactics as forms of political
expression. One might have mental health issues. Their activities involve street theater, public demonstrations,
climbing trees and power station cooling towers, blocking roads and railroad lines, riding horses while brandishing
shotguns, rifles and machetes, spitting, baring their buttocks and on at least one occasion, shooting a flag. They are
often loud, obnoxious and provocative in their protests. Some have a penchant for damaging corporate or government
property. Some have jostled with the police. None have a record of killing for political purposes.
Interestingly, two groups that have proven track records of violence were not in the alleged “paramilitary training
camps” in the Ureweras and therefore were not targeted for arrest: animal liberation activists and neo-Nazis. The former
have destroyed laboratories, liberated livestock and poultry and threatened executives of animal testing facilities and
the corporations that sponsor them. The latter have a history of physical violence against minorities and
internet-disseminated threats—complete with photographs of skinheads in military regalia and brandishing weapons—against
all those they consider to be “scum.” Along with criminal gangs that terrorise their local communities on a constant
basis, these groups have a much more demonstrable potential for terrorism than the “Urewera 17.” But they remain free.
Presumably the animal liberation activists did not require bush training in direct action nor survival techniques, or
else preferred to maintain cadre security by not associating with other groups. Neo-Nazis would not be bothered to
associate with “darkies” and “commies.” Criminal gangs may have some overlap with the arrested parties, but the police
emphasis is on the political rather than criminal connections of the detainees.
Does the “Urewera 17” constitute a viable terrorist threat and were they engaged in a terrorist conspiracy? From what
has surfaced in the public record so far, the case is debatable. Unlike guerrilla organizations operated by
ideologically committed militants pursuing common political causes, the Urewera 17 did not practice operational or
communications security. They emailed, text messaged, and phone called with apparent abandon, including in their
recruitment efforts of unaffiliated individuals. They cached weapons in a reduced number of places. They did not have
safe houses and did not move constantly to avoid apprehension. They did not hide their bush camps, which were a matter
of local knowledge, and they did not enjoy majority ideological support of the populations in which the camps were
located (who regarded them more as a nuisance than a threat). They did not kill or recruit the unaffiliated people they
encountered in the bush. The most prominent figure amongst those arrested is a celebrity. He could not lead a
clandestine terrorist conspiracy without a face transplant.
In effect, the Urewera 17 did not practice the secrecy, stealth, surprise, mobility, deception and dispersion that are
essential to successful guerrilla warfare. Even if they were making home grown napalm out of fire starter and throwing
petrol bottles around the bush while yelling “death to John Key!” they were behaving in a more seditious rather than
terroristic manner. Given the recent repeal of the Sedition Act and the ongoing debate about it, perhaps the police are
offering the public a not too subtle reminder of its utility when dealing with something that is less than terroristic
but more than simple firearms violations.
As it stands, the public record shows that those arrested were detained under suspicion of planning offenses outlined in
the Terrorism Suppression Act of 2002 as well as the Firearms Act. The police took extensive legal counsel on the
grounds on which the arrests were made, and judges issued the warrants. Since the SIS apparently was involved in the
electronic, if not human intelligence-gathering involved in the case (which included wiretaps, computer bugging, phone
intercepts and video-taping), the Minister for Intelligence and Security would have had to be involved in the decision
to pursue the arrests well prior to their undertaking. That person is the Prime Minister.
The timing of the arrests is interesting. Something occurred that caused the police to act last week. Yet the three
figures mentioned as possible targets—Helen Clark, John Key, and George W. Bush, were all out of the country at the
time. If it is true that certain Maori politicians were targeted, they clearly were not warned to increase their
personal and family security. It appears to be a coincidence that amendments to the Terrorism Suppression Act were
tabled for discussion the very week of the arrests, but it is politically naïve at best for the Police to invoke the TSA
for the first time while parliament was about to debate the issue.
As for the “military-style” weapons seized, those mentioned to date are unremarkable. Molotov cocktails and
paraffin-kerosene bombs may cause burns but will not bring down the Beehive. Modified hunting weapons and illegally
purchased semi-automatic rifles would have to be in relatively skilled hands in order to be effective at anything but
close range, which presumably would be difficult to achieve and therefore require meticulous planning, rehearsal and
preparation. Perhaps that did happen, but if so the police should provide clear and irrefutable evidence of it.
Otherwise they run the risk of crying wolf in the first use of the Terrorism Suppression Act, something that could well
hinder future counter-terrorist operations.
Some of those arrested may have military or police training and some might have engaged in surveiling potential targets.
Even so, normal criminal law offers ample grounds to justify their arrest: conspiracy to commit murder or serious bodily
injury; conspiracy to damage or destroy property; conspiracy to jeopardize public safety and wellbeing, and so on. Yet
from what the police have said, no such charges are in the offering. Instead, the Terrorism Suppression Act was invoked
even though it is oriented towards countering support or financing of foreign terrorist groups by New Zealanders, and
not towards domestic militants pursuing anti status quo political agendas. In that regard the prediction of Maori
activists at the time the TSA was passed in 2002 that they would eventually be targeted has come to pass sooner rather
than later (even though most of those arrested are not Maori).
Perhaps the people arrested maintained contacts with foreign indigenous, anti-globalisation and environmental groups.
But even if they did, those groups would have to be listed as designated terrorist entities by the UN and/or the US, UK
and Australia in order for the TSA to apply. Posting on militant on-line chat rooms, downloading anarchist publications
and viewing jihadist web sites does not constitute support for terrorism.
As it turns out the lead counter-terrorism unit in the country, a component of 1NZSAS, was not involved in the raids
even though they have legal charter to counter domestic terrorism and train regularly for it in urban and rural
theaters. That may be just as well. The militants fired no shots as they were rousted from their beds and bike shops,
and the police had little trouble taking all of their suspects into custody. Some locals were offended in Ruatoki by the
scope of the operation and the tactics used, but no violence occurred. The police argue that it is better to be safe
than sorry and that they acted in a preventive capacity. That is true, but the question still begs: why are these people
being held without bail on minor firearms offenses while additional charges are being decided against them? If
gangsters, rapists and child murderers can be bailed, why not these people?
It is incumbent upon the government, judiciary and police to immediately outline the legal grounds on which the Urewera
17 are being held. Otherwise the impression is left that New Zealand is on the slippery slope towards a Guantanamo
approach to political dissent in spite of its very different strategic and geopolitical position. People are detained on
minor charges and suspicion of something worse while the authorities decide what to do with them. The immediate grounds
for the arrests, length of time detained and nature of the other purported offenses committed by those held in
Guantanamo and Aotearoa may differ, but the fact that militant dissent is being criminalized in the post 9/11 security
environment in both instances does not. In dictatorships this would not be of much concern, but in liberal
democracies—particularly small open democracies with a history of political toleration and non-violent protest--it’s a
troubling development. For the former, security overrides human rights. For the latter, civil liberties must be the
priority, with domestic security operations constrained by notions of due process and full disclosure regardless of the
ideological persuasion of defendants. The threat of “terrorism” does not alter that foundational premise.
The reaction to the arrests shows that the public is skeptical of police motivations, and old wounds have been re-opened
as a consequence of their actions. If for no other reason than these, the police need to make a compelling case, and
they need to make it soon.
Paul G. Buchanan writes about issues of comparative and international politics.