'Untrue' guerrilla claims go back to 1980s, says Iti

By Catherine Masters

Tame Iti.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Tame Iti. Photo / Natalie Slade

Tame Iti says he has a long history of running programmes in the bush and that this is not the first time he has been accused - wrongly, he says - of guerrilla-type training.

The first time was in the 1980s.

Iti gave the Herald his side of the story in a frank interview days before the verdicts were due. He spoke from an empty law office on the ninth floor of a city building where he and a small band of supporters bunked down on couches and blow-up mattresses for the more than five weeks of the trial.

Wearing a freedom fighter T-shirt, the veteran Tuhoe activist and drug and alcohol worker, who is employed by Tuhoe's health service Tuhoe Hauora, said that back in the 1980s he was running a course as part of an Internal Affairs programme set up in the Muldoon era which was concentrating on potential gang areas, including Ruatoki, where he grew up.

"So our job, we're like the firemen to pull the so-called naughty people off the streets, and so I did this bush training. I did what they called seven days hiking in the bush, a lot of that to use the firearms, first aid, all of that sort of ... basic training.

"So I rung my brother up, he was in the army, he was in the stores department. I said 'bro, have you got any greens, uniform, kids love that kind of stuff. So I bought a whole lot of uniforms and dressed them up ... and off we go for seven days to Maungapohatu [a Tuhoe sacred mountain]."

One day his boss gave him a letter which he said had been sent from the Whakatane police.

"They were concerned about Mr Iti running guerrilla camps in the Urewera. That was way back in the 80s."

They threw the letter away and heard nothing more.

Iti says when he teaches about weapons - be they guns or taiaha - he also teaches that this knowledge is not to be used for purposes such as revenge.

The idea he had plans to kill was "bulls***" and "of course" he found such allegations hurtful.

"I don't mind taking the rap for some stuff and I'll tell you, I'll take the rap for that. But not this kind of bulls***. That's not me.

"So there was no plan, I mean that's the most f***ing ridiculous thing I heard in my life, that they were there to make a plan and go and kill somebody, to create havoc in our community.

"Where the hell did they get that idea from? The whole thing is bulls***. They just create it in their own cuckoo bloody brains, an assumption, they spy on me, they assume things, they look from a distance."

Iti is nearing 60 years old and says he has been in and out of court for 40 of those years on charges as varied as discharging a firearm - he shot the New Zealand flag on a Tuhoe marae during a Waitangi Tribunal hearing - and occupying a railway station.

He has won a few and lost a few but says in all those years he has never been sentenced to jail.

On the day of the raids the police trained the red dots of their weapons on him. "I got thrown down on the ground and they put the gun at the back of my head and they put the dog on to me at the same time." But if they had called and asked him to go to the police station, he says he would have.

"It's the normal thing I'm used to. I say, 'Am I under arrest, what are the charges, can you show it to me, sweet, then I'll jump in the car with you.' I know the ropes, I've had 40 years of it."

He claims the police surveillance against the entire community of Ruatoki was more extensive than already revealed and that they even recruited some in the community to spy on him.

Every morning he walked to the Auckland High Court dressed in his court attire - usually a colourful shirt, grey suit, a hat and shiny shoes. He wore the outfit, he says, because the case was a circus and the court a theatre. "I've got to treat the court case - it's like a show."

Working with prisoners

Tame Iti says he has worked with the Department of Corrections, and is about to start further work in which he would be counselling maximum security inmates.

Speaking to the Herald after the jury retired on Thursday, Iti said he was part of a team running a tikanga programme for the Department of Corrections involving high-risk prisoners.

And, depending on the verdict, he was on the brink of making prison visits to Auckland Prison at Paremoremo - New Zealand's only specialist maximum-security prison unit - where his work would involve counselling.

A Corrections Department spokeswoman said a response to Iti's statement was not available last night -despite the department having had more than 24 hours' notice.

Iti, an alcohol worker employed by Tuhoe's health service, Tuhoe Hauora, said he had also worked with police and other agencies such as Women's Refuge in the 4 years since his arrest as part of "Pol 400 meetings" in which family violence cases are allocated as part of his employment at Tuhoe Hauora.

Tamati Kruger, a Tuhoe spokesman and a witness for Iti's defence, confirmed Iti had made prison visits, and said released prisoners had come to the Tuhoe area.

He said there had also been instances where prisoners had asked for a specific programme or a person to act in a supportive supervisory role "and I know Tame has been nominated by prisoners who have been released ... as a supporter, supervisor or it could be as a role model, etcetera. Everybody at home knows that when the police can't do it, they ring him up ... A few months later those people go and arrest him.

"It's just the nature of the contradiction of the system that we live in."

Auckland University law professor Warren Brookbanks said the nature of the programme Iti was involved with was important.

"A lot of people go into prisons running various types of programmes ... the question is the appropriateness of a person [doing so after] being charged with criminal offences."

- additional reporting, Andrew Koubaridis.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 22 Dec 2014 20:55:27 Processing Time: 280ms