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. Today: Episode 5, The Tipping Point.
Being described as an international terrorist on the front page of the NZ Herald was definitely a low point for Ahmed Zaoui and his lawyer Deborah Manning.
But it also sparked some unexpected reactions. Zaoui became a prison hero and the uproar prompted singer and national icon Dave Dobbyn to lend his folk anthem Welcome Home to the cause.
Manning describes that low moment on the podcast Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File.
"I remember I had sort of gone to bed that night saying, 'I don't think I can do much more' and then I got a phone call at 6am from my colleague saying, 'have you seen the paper?'.
"And the Government had clearly been doing this story for months and it was front page - Zaoui, false passport, journey into the shadows and it was the Catherine Field article."
Catherine Field was the Herald's Paris-based correspondent. Her article outlining Zaoui's alleged terror connections in Europe sent the defence team into another tailspin. Ironically it also made Zaoui a hero amongst inmates at Auckland's Mt Eden Prison.
"All the prisoners they come to me and they said, 'ahh Ahmed', they respect me," Zaoui remembers with a smile.
"They think I'm a big man of army, as they used to say to me, 'Ahmed, do you know Bin Laden?' and I said, 'no', and with smile. And they said, 'did you meet Saddam Hussein?' I said, 'no'."
He can laugh about it now, but at the time the article – which tapped into
multiple sources inside the French and Belgium spy agencies and judicial systems – painted Ahmed Zaoui as the terrorist the SIS said he was.
As Deborah Manning saw it, the story gave credence to dubious sources amongst European spy agencies and destroyed her efforts to show the New Zealand public that her client wasn't a shadowy villain, as many talkback radio callers had claimed.
Team Zaoui had to find a new way to defend their client. And one of those ways was to enlist the help of high-profile supporters, including singer-songwriter Dave Dobbyn, now Sir Dave Dobbyn. He had been watching the treatment of Ahmed Zaoui with some alarm.
"I guess it sort of sent alarm bells in me that as it developed you could spend basically two years in prison in pretty much solitary confinement or whatever it was without any charges," Dobbyn recalls.
"I decided at the time in righteous outrage and indignation that I didn't want to live in a country that condoned treating anybody like that, let alone an immigrant and a refugee."
His song Welcome Home was written before Zaoui had arrived in New Zealand, but it became associated with Zaoui and the plight of refugees generally.
"Yeah it became an anthem. You know, fresh New Zealand citizens should be treated exactly the same as any other New Zealand citizens. And I think the refugees who are not citizens should be treated with the utmost respect just out of shear human dignity.
"And I don't think that Ahmed was being offered at the time that dignity and… I joined Deborah in being outraged at that."
Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File was made with the support of NZ On Air.