A judge in the High Court at Wellington has reserved his decision on whether three men who sabotaged a radar dome at Marlborough's Waihopai Valley spybase should be liable to pay damages of $1.2 million.
Attorney-General Chris Finlayson has filed papers on behalf of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to recover the costs inflicted three years ago by teacher Adrian Leason, Dominican friar Peter Murnane and farmer Sam Land.
In the early morning of April 30, 2008, the trio cut through alarmed electric fences at the base near Blenheim and slashed one of two inflatable domes covering satellite dishes.
They claimed they were acting for the greater good and saving lives in Iraq by disrupting satellite transmissions.
A preliminary hearing was held today before Associate Judge David Gendall to decide whether or not to grant the Crown's application for summary judgement as to the trio's liability for damages.
The three "penniless" defendants, however, want to go to a full civil trial which they hope would force the Crown to reveal more information about the spybase and its operations, or instead decide not to pursue damages.
Mr Leason, Father Murnane and Mr Land have already been before the criminal court, where a jury last year found them not guilty of burglary and wilful damage.
"There is no dispute over what they did," said Crown lawyer Austin Powell.
The men, who claimed the spybase in Waihopai Valley near Blenheim was illegal, could have taken court action instead of attacking the base directly, he said.
But Michael Knowles, acting for Mr Leason, and Antony Shaw for Fr Murnane and Mr Land, said the men did what they thought was necessary.
Mr Knowles questioned whether the Crown had initiated civil action "to save face" and "put a toe in the water".
Both counsel said it would be inappropriate to determine proceedings without more investigation and further evidence from the plaintiff to combat the points raised by the defence.
Mr Knowles: "There should be the same test in both civil and criminal proceedings."
Even if no-one in New Zealand was threatened by the Waihopai base, the defendants were deeply concerned about the consequences of its operations in other countries.
Throughout the day, both defence lawyers read material from written affidavits supplied by Waihopai opponents. They also cited court cases both in New Zealand and overseas where people had taken direct action because they felt they had no other option.
Mr Shaw said the evidence of all three defendants had not been challenged by the Crown, which was "not engaging" in the topics raised.
"We cannot proceed if the State holds disclosure on the grounds of national security."
He said the court was being asked to exonerate the defendants for taking the law into their own hands.
"It cannot be said the defendants' conduct was criminal - they have been acquitted."
Although their presence was not necessary, Mr Leason and Fr Murnane were at the hearing, while Mr Land was working on his farm.
The small courtroom was packed with about 40 attentive supporters, many of whom sat on the floor initially. At the morning adjournment they were told by the registrar that it was not appropriate to sit on the ground in front of a High Court judge.
They had to either stand or take turns using the limited seating.
Apologising for the cramped space, the registrar said: "We were not expecting such a large crowd."
Associate Judge Gendall said he hoped to release his decision within the next two or three weeks.