Peace activist. Died aged 65
Owen Wilkes, the peace activist who once faced jail for allegedly spying in Scandinavia, has died in Hamilton. He was 65.
Invitations to work at peace research institutes in Norway and Sweden were sparked by the work Wilkes had done on the proposed Omega transmitter station in the South Island, which he believed would make New Zealand a target in a nuclear war.
He went to the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1976, where he studied electronic listening posts in Norway.
One report led to an espionage charge, but the realisation that Wilkes and his colleague were not working for any foreign power meant the two were let off with a fine and a suspended sentence.
Wilkes then took up a job with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, but by 1981 he was in trouble again, this time with Swedish authorities accusing him of improperly acquiring classified information on Swedish defence.
He was sentenced to six months in prison. On appeal the sentence was commuted to deportation and a ban on his returning to Sweden for 10 years.
So in 1982 he came home, to find the solar-powered house he had built near Punakaiki on the West Coast, one of the first in the country, had been pulled down by the Buller County Council because it did not have a permit.
Wilkes was born in Christchurch, the son of a grocer. He moved to a farm near Karamea in 1983 and took up bee-keeping, but achieved prominence again the next year when it was discovered that Customs had opened packages sent to Wilkes from overseas and forwarded the contents to the Security Intelligence Service.
Nothing to threaten national security was found.
Claims by Wilkes in the early 1980s that the communications centre at Tangimoana in the lower North Island was actually an electronic spy station and part of an American worldwide network were immediately denied by the Government. Activists to this day are calling for the closure of Tangimoana and Waihopai base near Blenheim, another suspected spy base.
Wilkes moved to Hamilton in the early 1990s and rediscovered a lifelong passion for archaeology. He worked for the Department of Conservation, researching pre-European settlements in the western King Country.
Author and researcher Nicky Hager yesterday described Wilkes as a genuinely exceptional New Zealander, "partly because of his independence but also because of his ability to research and articulate ideas not yet understood. He is very widely respected by all sorts of ordinary people".
By Phoebe Falconer Email Phoebe