EUGENE BINGHAM tells the story behind the case called in the Auckland District Court that was suppressed


for "national security" in the aftermath of September 11.



The two Afghan men stared at the New Zealand coat of arms on the wall above the judge's shoulder.



Abdul Maasud, a bear-sized man with a thick black beard, and his slighter-framed co-accused, Mohammed Ismail, were in the Auckland District Court for a routine appearance.

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Their case - both men were on fraud charges - seemed no more interesting than the dozens of others that would be called that afternoon.



Judge Fred McElrea listened to the defence and prosecution lawyers sort out the dates for their upcoming trial before he dropped his bombshell.



He had been looking at the files and had some concerns.



"The allegations take on a somewhat different light in view of September 11," Judge McElrea told the court.



"In view of these developments I am concerned about the prospect of them not responding to their bail, particularly in view of their alleged admissions of false immigration statements and alleged connections to military organisations."



Their lawyer, Paul Dacre, was as shocked by the development as the police. What was supposed to be a straightforward appearance was about to turn into a national security scare.



Judge McElrea decided it was best to hold a full bail hearing and set out his reasons in the most sombre of court language. The Herald has not been able to report what he said until now.



"They are appearing on charges relating to alleged fraudulent use of documents to attain refugee status," said the judge.



"Both men are from Afghanistan. The charges have some relation to recent world events, at least potentially if the summary of facts is to be believed. The allegation is that both people hold the rank of commander in certain armed forces and disguised that fact on admission to New Zealand. They are allegations of a very serious nature. I am very concerned that in light of recent events that they may not respond to their conditions of bail."



The court hearing was on September 27, two weeks after hijackers slammed jetliners into the World Trade Centre in New York. The world was tense.



The papers Judge McElrea was so worried about included police summaries of the cases prepared more than a year earlier.



The summaries alleged that Ismail, 30, had connections with "a figure of national importance in Afghanistan and a person holding the rank of commander".



They alleged that searches of a Mt Albert home where Ismail once lived had led to the discovery of a map of Sydney with the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor highlighted.



Of Maasud, 42, they said he had admitted being a former director-general of the most important area of border on the northwestern frontier in Afghanistan - not the persecuted liquor salesman he claimed to be when he arrived in New Zealand in August 1998.



None of the allegations have been proved in court.



Maasud and Ismail were among a group of refugees who had been under police investigation since early 2000, though there were not initially any security fears.



Detective Sergeant Craig Turley, of the Henderson police, had begun looking at allegations of a people-smuggling racket operating out of Auckland. It was believed about 1000 Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis had entered New Zealand illegally using the people smugglers as their travel agents.



In March that year, about 20 homes and businesses around Auckland were raided as part of the investigation codenamed Operation Amid. More than 7000 documents were seized - photographs, letters, travel papers, maps.



Most of them were of interest to investigators looking at the people-smuggling ring. But a selection of them became the centre of a security scare here and in Australia.



In one house in Hendon Ave, Mt Albert, police found the Sydney map. As well as highlighting the nuclear reactor, the map was marked with what was termed "an anti-surveillance route" - directions from a Sydney suburb to the reactor that curled around the city rather than taking the most direct path.



In another house police found a red notebook that included details of how New Zealand would respond to a terrorist attack. It included information on police command structures and notes from Operation Lawman, a regular multi-agency counter-terrorist exercise.



Also found were videos and photographs of military scenes, some including images of recent New Zealand arrivals who had not told authorities of their battle histories.



There were satellite phone records, too. One phone number in particular sparked significant interest. Police ran a sting operation in which they rang the number using an uncover agent. He established the number was for "an Islamic military unit", according to court documents obtained by the Herald.



The discoveries prompted a security alert.



Was there a terrorist cell in Mt Albert? Was there a sleeper cell? Or was it just a group of former fighters who had not told the whole truth when they claimed asylum in New Zealand?



All this was unfolding in the months leading up to the Sydney Olympics.



Turley refuses to discuss details of the cases, but it is understood the information was sent to police intelligence officers. They forwarded it to colleagues across the Tasman in case there was a threat to the Olympics.



News of the investigation was broken by Weekend Herald correspondent John Andrews in August 2000.



Though politicians and some media outlets mocked the story, its details were confirmed by high-ranking police at the time.



The Herald can now reveal what became of the investigation.



Interest initially focused on the map and the notebook.



Investigations established that the map itself was about 20 years old. No one could say when the markings were added to it.



The man at whose house the map was found, Mohammed Omar Ahmadzi, said it had been bought in a garage sale. Another man gave the same explanation for the notebook.



Investigators established that the references in it were dated, too - the Operation Lawman exercise was one in the late 1980s and the command structure was one for the 1990 Commonwealth Games.



As for the satellite phone calls, the court documents do not say, but it is understood from community sources that the phone call had gone through to high commanders in the Northern Alliance, the force in Afghanistan that was at that time fighting the ruling Taleban.



Police refuse to discuss the details of the cases. But it seems that while the investigations established several refugees had undisclosed military backgrounds and material that caused suspicion, they were not terrorists. Or a sleeper cell.



The Northern Alliance's diplomatic representative in Australia, Mahmoud Saikal, told the Herald that members of the alliance were not involved in terrorism.



"The struggle has involved fighting against terrorism," Mr Saikal told the Herald in an interview last year. "There were atrocities that took place but I believe that a good percentage of people who were involved were victims of circumstances themselves. One has to be very careful about not being too quick to make a conclusion about the criminal background of someone."



Though the police will not comment, Turley revealed the police's conclusions about Maasud and Ismail in an affidavit filed with the court.



"I would like to emphasise that in relation to [the pair] and their associates, we have not found at this stage of our inquiries any evidence of any danger to any persons within or outside of New Zealand," said Turley.



By the time that affidavit was lodged, however, Maasud and Ismail were behind bars in New Zealand's most secure prison at Paremoremo.



After the Auckland District Court hearing on September 27, Judge McElrea had remanded the pair until the next day for a jail hearing before another judge, Judge Arthur Tompkins. He accepted arguments that the court be cleared on the grounds of national security and suppressed all details of the hearing.



Court documents obtained by the Herald now show the men were remanded for a further week because everyone involved had been caught out by the developments.



Their lawyer, Dacre, said he had been unable to obtain proper instructions from the men because of language difficulties, while the Crown had not yet given him some information they were relying on for their case.



"[Mr Dacre's] view, and I understand that [Peter] Dean for the Crown agreed, was that because of the nature of the accuseds' background and the effect of events in the United States, the applications [for bail and suppression] which were for determination today simply could not properly be disposed of this afternoon," wrote Judge Tompkins.



Maasud and Ismail were taken away. But rather than being dealt with like any other remand inmate, they were driven to Paremoremo, a maximum security prison. The police helicopter shadowed the vehicle taking them there.



They were isolated from the other prisoners, who stood staring at them through the bars.



A week later, on the strength of Turley's affidavit, the pair were released on bail, though they were still due to face trial on the fraud charges.



The national security alert was over.



As the months went by, New Zealand backed away from its initial hardline response to September 11. Questions were asked about the detention of virtually all asylum seekers on arrival.



While terrorist alerts grew in the United States, New Zealand shifted back to a lower-key approach.



Authorities reconsidered their case against Maasud and Ismail and decided it was pointless to continue, says an immigration source.



"In the current environment it would only have inflamed paranoia and suspicions that would have been unwarranted."



Five months after the judge's order which triggered fears of a sinister new terrorist threat, Maasud and Ismail were back in court. The charges against them were quietly dropped and the two men went back to their jobs driving taxis.



Both are considering claims for compensation.