What do you do when the state locks you in jail and calls you a terrorist - but refuses to say why? John Keir tells the inside story behind New Zealand's biggest security scandal in Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File, starting Monday.
New Zealand's most famous refugee Ahmed Zaoui has returned home safely to his native Algeria.
The Islamic scholar and politician was imprisoned when he arrived in New Zealand as a fugitive on a false passport in 2002 and detained here for five years on unsubstantiated terrorism-related charges.
His detention sparked a national "Free Zaoui" campaign and the revival of Dave Dobbyn's immigrant song Welcome Home as an anthem for the cause.
But when the SIS eventually dropped its security risk certificate against him - in the face of overwhelming evidence that the terrorism links had been faked by Algeria's government - Zaoui virtually disappeared from the headlines.
For most New Zealanders, he was last seen running a kebab shop in Palmerston North.
As a new Herald podcast - Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File - makes clear, that was not the end of the story.
"Some Algerian officers of the Secret Service they contact me and say 'Ahmed, why didn't you come back to Algeria?'," Zaoui recalls.
He gave them the obvious reply – that they had been hunting him down across the world for two decades and the Algerian military regime had twice sentenced him to death in absentia.
Zaoui suspected a trick but was gradually persuaded that the political climate had changed significantly and that he and his wife and children would now be safe.
It took a year and a half to clear the Interpol warnings against his name, but in 2016 the family was able to travel back to Algeria, this time on genuine passports.
Zaoui now lives in Medea, Algeria's second-largest city, and hopes to start a business importing New Zealand mānuka honey. He has recently recovered from Covid-19.
The podcast, which starts on Monday and was produced for the Herald by documentary maker John Keir with the support of NZ on Air, contains extensive interviews with Zaoui himself and the two young lawyers for fought for his freedom, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod.
They describe the David and Goliath battle to defend their client against charges deemed so secret they were never allowed to see the evidence against him.
In frustration, Manning travelled to Europe with French-speaking Progressive MP and Zaoui supporter Matt Robson, where they hit the jackpot – a secret interview with Algeria's KGB-trained former top spy, Colonel Mohammed Samraoui, who used to run the military regime's operations to assassinate or frame political opponents such as Zaoui.
In the podcast, Manning remembers the nine-hour interview with the Algerian defector in a Belgium apartment on a freezing winter night as "a window into a very frightening world".
"It's just commonplace ... for people to be tipped out of third-floor balconies," she recalls.
"Talking about people being liquidated – it's just a normal part of [his] vocabulary."
She says Samraoui confirmed that the Algerian regime decided in 1993 that Zaoui was worth more to them alive than dead.
"He talked about the fact that he was at meetings when the decision was made to paint him as a terrorist and to contaminate intelligence information about Zaoui. It was under his watch."
It was the breakthrough the lawyers had been waiting for.
"He's saying that the Western intelligence information is contaminated and I know, because I did it. That's pretty close to a slam dunk."
Enemy of the State also features many of the bizarre and little-known twists in the Zaoui saga.
Robson explains why he was mistaken for a Russian spy. McLeod describes how one "Free Zaoui" public meeting was nearly derailed by angry rhododendron lovers.
And Manning reveals that Zaoui, a competitive football player, once issued a fatwah - a declaration on a point of religious law – so he could finish a game instead of going to prayers.
Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File starts on Monday, August 2. It was made with the support of NZ On Air.