So the Urewera Four are serving time, yet no-one can confidently say what they were really up to and the police allegations are all over the place

Has ever so much time and money been spent on gaining so little clarity? Even with Tame Iti and Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara now behind bars, no-one seems to be able to say what was going on at the Urewera training camps and who was at risk.

I've seen two interviews with Police Commissioner Peter Marshall this week, heard another on radio and read articles in print, and he clearly can't tell us. On Q+A he said:

"...we don’t know [what was going on in the camps], and I’m sure the people around this country would like to know."

Marshall talks assertively about "antics" and "lots of troubling events"; you can see that he's a copper's cop with plenty of balls. He insists that police are "very clearly vindicated" by the sentences this week. But at the same time he can't say who was at risk, which buildings were being targeted or what the plot was. It's just the beginning of a series of inconsistencies or downright contradictions that don't make sense -- not to me, at least.

In the same sentence as Marhsall says "We don’t know the specifics," he adds "But what we were convinced about, it wasn’t just idle talk".

Convinced by what evidence?

And if that's not enough, he adds that he knows nothing about widely discussed allegations that President George Bush (who's never visited New Zealand) was to be assassinated by catapulting a bus onto him.

"I’m not aware of that particular approach, but I’m certainly aware that President Bush’s name was mentioned in conversations. I don’t know what context. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that there were a number of remarks made about the use of explosives, about attacking institutions, and indeed killing people."

Those supporting the Urewera Four are just as ill-informed.

Te Ururoa Flavell says he doesn't know what they were doing in the Ureweras and hasn't even asked. Yet he too is convinced -- in his case, he's certain "nothing sinister" was going on.

The best we've had from those convicted is talk of Iraqi security jobs and connecting with maoritanga; the training camps have been called wananga. All of which seems more like obfuscation than candour.

It's the blind arguing with the blind.

Marshall seems almost willfully ignorant. There have been numerous reports that then-Opposition Leader John Key was a named target (see here, for example). Yet he blandly insists there was not aware of any threat against Key, even though, as Tracey Watkins wrote today:

Evidence published previously suggested Mr Key was referred to by the group as a potential target and Mr Key says he was briefed by police that he was a potential target.

Despite that briefing, Key went into a remote marae in the Ureweras just two months before the raids. A little risky? Heck no, says Marshall. But, er, you've just said assassination attempts were being plotted and you weren't sure who the targets might be...

" assured that we would not have let him as leader of the opposition go into that area if we, at that particular stage, thought he was at risk".

Then you've got the claim an armed police officer boarded a bus. Marshall this time doesn't claim ignorance; rather he says that he's asked around and found "absolutely no evidence".

"From my point of view, it simply did not happen".

He may be right. Labour's Education Minister Steve Maharey made the same assertion in parliament at the time of the raid. The wrinkle is that bus driver Isaac Nuku insists his bus was boarded and searched by an armed officer. TVNZ has footage of him making the claim and of his giving his statement to police -- so Marshall must know of Nuku's claim.

And let me toss in one more. Marshall notes that's Iti is hardly in peak physical condition and so the claim of training for a security job in Iraq is laughable; but he's willing to believe that the same over-weight dandy was a "threat to democracy" and a potential assassin. Somehow this performer... artist... protester... is a killer. He was allowed to travel the art galleries of Europe while on bail and anyone who's met him will tell you he's a charmer, a showman and a big-talker, but hardly a serious threat.

Such confusion over events five years and many court days later seems remarkable and worrying. Isn't the justice system - from investigation to prosecution - meant to be about establishing the truth?

Hope for any real answers now lies with the Independent Police Complaints Authority, which is expected to give its findings in the next month or two.

Maybe that will have some answers, because no other blighter does.

Comments (11)

by nommopilot on May 27, 2012

great analysis Tim, I hope we do get some more enlightening info from the PCA

I went to a talk by Nicky Hager and (I think) Annette Sykes at the Library not long after the raids and have been following the developments.

Hager basically linked the 911 attacks which caused our government to imbue the police with (I think) 11 million dollars for terrorist fighting as well as some law changes to surveillance and this was the closest thing they were able to find to terrorists (apart from using private investigators to infiltrate Greenpeace).  They basically had to justify their new terrorist-fighting powers and budgets.

Sykes, who was part of the defence team for the accused told us there was something like 65000 A4 pages of "evidence" gathered using these powers (including basically every phone bill, power bill and bank statement of all the accused) which they were expected to process on limited legal aid hours.

(Note the above details are from memory and may not be accurate, but hey that's what this case is all about right)

From what I can see they were up to something (I remember Iti running around the Parihaka festival trying to grab converts the year prior to the raids, though it was never really clear what he was asking people to sign up for), but despite all that extra money and surveillance power the police were unable to find any real evidence of WTFever they thought what was going on.

It leaves us with 2 possibilities and no way of knowing which is right:

Either they were planning something illegal and the police foiled it, blunderingly, in such a way that only a few charges could actually be laid, but any actual terrorism was averted.

They weren't up to anything illegal and the police blunderingly persecuted a bunch of innocent people and terrorised a community.

I'm inclined to go with option 1, on the basis that I don't think the accused would be offering such - quite frankly - insane explanations for what they were doing.

Is it really feasible that a bunch of people who up until now have been largely dedicating their time to fighting government oppression and environmental degradation all suddenly decided to go help enforce security for (?) in Iraq?

/my 2c

by nommopilot on May 27, 2012

having said that I remember watching something on (20/20 / 60 mins type show) about Kyle and his National Front mates playing paintball and training for the coming Economo/politica/Sociopocalypse doing basically the same stuff the Urewera crew were accused of and no one seemed to see them as a threat.

And if anything they seemed slightly more competent with guns than the Urewera people appeared to be..  :-)

by Tim Watkin on May 27, 2012
Tim Watkin

Thanks for that Mic. You're right, there's really no knowing at this point, which is baffling in itself. It's interesting you plump for option one. I just don't know.

Assuming you're right, the police had to act. So the question moves on to how they acted. It seems to me there are two problems with that. First, the raids assumed a serious – and as Marshall has described it, growing and imminent – threat. Whatever they may have been bragging to each other about, I'm just not convinced these people can be taken all that seriously. Second, why not try a more subtle initial approach?

These are not guys hiding in the back country with whom you'd only get one shot and a misjudgement could be fatal. You could have pulled Iti away from a gallery opening to take him in for questioning! I'm curious that Marshall thought sending the local cops or Maori liaison officers round for a stern chat would have been "naive". Especially given that's what was done, according to the Herald, the last time Iti was running round in the bush with guns, back in the '80s.

Perhaps something serious was averted, perhaps the intent was nefarious. But for me the evidence thus far raises real questions about that, and I'd expect better answers by now.

by nommopilot on May 27, 2012

"Whatever they may have been bragging to each other about, I'm just not convinced these people can be taken all that seriously."

Totally agree.  I think being in a well-funded, dedicated anti-terrorist squad went to the cops' heads and caused them to get all gung-ho about fighting terror and basically lose their objectivity.  They thought they had free rein to invade these people's privacy but it turned out their hand wasn't quite as strong as they thought.

Clearly the evidence was not there to show imminent threat. 

"Perhaps something serious was averted, perhaps the intent was nefarious. But for me the evidence thus far raises real questions about that, and I'd expect better answers by now."

I'm with you on this as well.  Clearly there was not sufficient evidence of either nefarious intent or terrorist shenanigans to secure a conviction and I think in light of that, the sentences awarded were far too harsh.  I skimmed the interesting bits of the judges notes ( (Scoop pdf)) and found interesting the degree to which the charges that were not proved still bear on the sentencing and also that some of the factors that have lead to harsh sentencing were more a result of the police approach than the "terrorist" activities.  "Damage to the community" is mostly a result of the controversy and tribulations of the raids themselves and "the ongoing nature of the offending" is largely due to a failure of the police to act on the illegal firearms as they waited to gather evidence of terrorism.  I think a more nuanced approach than simultaneous nationwide dawn raids and a community lockdown was in order.

The degree to which our civil liberties are curtailed by a societal fear of terror (ha!) is the degree to which the terrorists have won.

by Bruce Thorpe on May 28, 2012
Bruce Thorpe

On one hand I think the most relevant observation to be made about Iti is that he is not very scarey. 

On the other hand the police appear to be very scarey indeed,even more incompetent and not subject to anything like adequate monitoring.

But this case and the judicial decision are terribly flawed in the terms of Gladstone(?) that justice delayed is justice denied.

I would be a lot happier if four and more years since the police action, we were talking of historic misjudgement by all parties, instead of the situation where people who have been running around loose all these years are now to be imprisoned for significant periods for something still clouded in confusion and tainted by police posturing.

by william blake on May 28, 2012
william blake

mic, I think it was $8m over four years that went to the anti terrorist squad.

Yes the response was authoritarian but running around in fatigues with weapons will get all the attention you are seeking. I am just surprised that the 'Urawera four' did not make more political gain from the stage that they had constructed rather than copping out with the 'training' excuse / pretence.

I am grateful that the charade was halted before a younger activist was inspired to genuinely terrorise the New Zealand public.

by nommopilot on May 29, 2012

" did not make more political gain from the stage that they had constructed"

can't see how they constructed the stage.  I'm sure it whatever their cunning plan was it didn't include getting arrested and spending the next four years mucking through the courts and media circus.

I'm sure they didn't plan for the police to raid their communities either, but the judgement certainly seems to blame them for that...

by Peter Clareburt on May 29, 2012
Peter Clareburt

In the end its the old duck saying - if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck then perhaps it is a duck. Now of course people are trying to say it wasn't a duck they were just being a goose.

trouble is playing at being a duck in duck shooting season is not a wise course of action and when they did this supposed play acting people were pretty nervous - in other parts of the world people were getting blown up and killed. 

I think in the end a suspended sentence would have been more appropriate.

But to me appart from iti and his group being silly there was a pretty poor response from both politicians and the ploice at the time.

Time for all concerned to learn a few things.

by william blake on May 29, 2012
william blake

@mic, it used to be standard procedure for political prisoners to make political gain from the dock,instead these guys came up with a defence for their actions . 

If we are to 'understand' that the group are political activists fighting on behalf of Tuhoe  rather than believe their cover story, then perhaps we should extend the same understanding to the Anti terrorist squad ie that they were genuinely protecting New Zealanders rather than justifying their budgets. 

by nommopilot on May 29, 2012

They are well known as political activists.  That doesn't mean they are terrorists.  Most of them are officially innocent.  Four have firearms convictions.

The fact that this trial wasn't used as a political soapbox is interesting.  My thought is that they realised the hot water they were in and accepted legal advice not to proclaim their manifesto vociferously in a manner that might be interpreted as extremist zealotry of whatever flavour.  That might seem a little too terroristy.  I think they were genuinely worried about going to jail.  That doesn't mean they were guilty.

As for the police:

I'm sure they are good people and I'm sure they thought they were genuinely protecting New Zealanders.  That doesn't justify their actions automatically.  They should still be required to account for their actions, given that they were unable to proove the guilt of the accused, we need to ask if the way they behaved was appropriate.  I really don't think it was.

Most people, in any job are trying to justify the money that is spent on them.  How would a report that went "There are no terrorists in New Zealand" sound?  Four years in a row?  May as well drop the terrorism budget down to a million...  They had to identify the most terrorism-like behaviour they could and they had a lot of resources and (they believed, at least), legal flexibility.  And they stuffed it up mightily.

by alexb on May 29, 2012

It is a very sad day for justice when people are jailed, in part, for crimes they were charged with but not convicted of. The Judge in sentencing asserted they were part of a private militia, if that were the case then the jury would have found them guilty of being part of an organised criminal group.

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