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 9, The Backdown.
It was the moment suspected terrorist Ahmed Zaoui never expected would ever happen. The new boss of the SIS apologised to him and asked to shake his hand.
It happened at a secret meeting in September 2007 in the offices of immigration lawyer Richard McLeod who, for the previous four and a half years, had defended the Algerian asylum seeker against unspecified charges that he was a danger to New Zealand.
Ahmed Zaoui had been held under a security risk certificate – part of immigration law that had never been used previously. And has never been used since.
But everything changed that July when the security service and the Government decided he was no longer a threat to our national security.
In what one lawyer described as "an elegant solution", the SIS withdrew the security risk certificate and Zaoui was free.
Dr Rhys Ball formerly worked for the SIS and now lectures on security at Massey University.
"A cave in? I don't know," he says.
"Sometimes you get analysis, you get assessments wrong. It's not an absolute perfect science. So if at some stage it becomes clear the information is not accurate or was not as robust as perhaps the SIS were originally lead to believe, they come to this conclusion.
"Or, and I'm speculating here, there was some sort of political imperative to say, 'let's end this now'. So that may have come from higher up? I don't know."
Lawyer Deborah Manning remembers the aftermath of the Zaoui affair. "I think the fear was that Mr Zaoui would sue the Government for damages. But as he told me, 'money comes and money goes in this life. The only thing I need is my family.' Ahmed had no interest in suing anyone."
So, on a spring day in 2007, Dr Warren Tucker – the new director of the Security Intelligence Service – met with Ahmed Zaoui and his lawyers Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod in McLeod's downtown Auckland immigration law firm.
The purpose of the meeting was to work out how the Algerian refugee would be reinterviewed so that the SIS could finally determine that he posed no threat to New Zealand.
But the meeting turned out to be unexpectedly conciliatory.
"I meet Warren Tucker in the office of Richard and he said to me 'can I shake your hand?'," Zaoui remembers.
"And I say 'yes, why not, you are welcome'. And we start to talk and he said 'sorry for what's happened to you, maybe it's a misunderstanding'."
Manning remembers the handshake.
"It was the first time Mr Zaoui had officially engaged with the machinery of state. He was very gracious."
Enemy of the State: The Ahmed Zaoui File was made with the support of NZ On Air.