Editorial: Unanswered questions on Urewera four

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Tame Iti outside the High Court. Photo / Greg Bowker
Tame Iti outside the High Court. Photo / Greg Bowker

More than four years after police put a stop to an apparent paramilitary training camp in the Ureweras, the country is none the wiser about what was going on there.

Lawyers for the accused in the six-week trial scoffed at suggestions their clients were hell-bent on acts of terrorism or sabotage but the scanty explanations they offered - such as training for security work - were equally hard to believe.

The jury was unable to decide whether the four accused were participating in organised criminal activity.

Their supporters are celebrating as though the jury's indecision was an acquittal. It is not. It means the question is unresolved and unless the Crown seeks a retrial, it will remain an open question. What were those people doing?

The question has lost some of the urgency it had when police began keeping watch on the mysterious activities in the Urewera bush.

The "war on terror" was still a worldwide pre-occupation in 2006. The police went beyond their powers of search and surveillance at that time to monitor the group's activities, and they swooped with unusual force on the morning of October 15, 2007, bringing a terror of their own to residents of Ruatoki.

The public still awaits the Police Complaints Authority's report on that operation. Many wait for that side of the story as anxiously as they have awaited the trial of those arrested that day.

Initially, charges were laid under a new Terrorism Suppression Act until the Solicitor-General ruled that the evidence, while "very disturbing", was not sufficient to establish that any of the 18 people arrested had been planning a particular terrorist act.

Late in 2008, new charges were laid under the Arms Act with five of the accused facing a more serious charge under the Crimes Act of participating in a criminal group. Their lawyers then challenged the legality of the police surveillance operation which had included covert filming of the activities on Tuhoe land.

That litigation went to the High Court, Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court which ruled last September that evidence gained by secret cameras could not be used.

The ruling was said to have halted numerous police investigations and prosecutions and the Government hastily passed temporary legislation to validate video surveillance.

After the years of procedural legal argument and legislation the case has finally come back to its essential questions - and the country is not much the wiser. Only four of the 18 originally arrested had to answer charges in court, and they have been found guilty of the arms offences. These are serious enough. Hunting rifles may be a common feature of life in the area but molotov cocktails surely are not.

It is worth recalling the words of the Solicitor-General when he decided the evidence did not support a charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act. He was critical of the act ("unnecessarily complex, incoherent and almost impossible to apply") not the police. They had "a sufficient and proper basis" for concern about what these people were doing.

The video shown at the trial has confirmed that much. If people are going to play games with real guns and explosives anywhere in New Zealand, they had better ensure they are authorised in law. The police may have an apology to make for some of their actions at Ruatoki, but not for their concern about paramilitary activities. On the evidence the public has now seen, they had to act.

- NZ Herald

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