Deep in the forest two Auckland hunters run into some scary men in camouflage gear who seem to them to be training in military-style manoeuvres. The men are not friendly so the hunters retreat and back in Auckland they go to the police.

The authorities, though, are already secretly watching and listening in the remote Ureweras, home to Tuhoe, one of the last tribes to be reached by the English and a tribe with a host of grievances against their treatment by the Crown, including the deliberate starvation of their ancestors and the confiscation of most of their forest.

Phones are being tapped, too, and hours and hours of odd, and sometimes bonkers, conversation are recorded, linking a nationwide web of disparate people, including Pakeha greenies, peace activists and Maori radicals to the goings-on in the bush.

Police are using extra powers granted to them and intelligence services after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to spy on New Zealanders. By late 2007, they are so alarmed they decide action under the new anti-terrorist legislation is required. They believe quasi-military training camps are being run in the bush: in the post-September 11 climate, terrorists are plotting and practising among the rimu trees, wild pigs and kereru.


There was talk of assassinating the Prime Minister, and taking action against US President George W Bush, a contempt of court hearing was told in 2008.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was told camp participants had been training to use napalm and had made molotov cocktails. John Key is briefed as well. An explosion had been heard in the bush and some participants allegedly had military-style assault rifles.

Police connected the camps to Tame Iti, long-known for his headline-grabbing acts to further the case for a Tuhoe nation within New Zealand and the return of their land. Iti grew up in the Ureweras and, though he moves around, his home base is tiny Ruatoki.

At dawn on October 15, simultaneous commando raids were launched around the country and people ordered from their beds with guns to their heads. The Tuhoe stronghold of Ruatoki took the brunt of the police action. The raids that morning still echo for the people who say the whole community was treated like criminals.

Ruatoki is the kind of place where horses graze in backyards; the houses are basic and poor, and it's not without its troubles.

People flout the council laws and refuse to register their dogs, and gang stand-offs are not unknown - once the police station up the road at Taneatua was torched.

But the valley was peaceful that morning, people said in the aftermath - it was the police who brought violence. The airspace over the Bay of Plenty was closed as hundreds of armed officers, dressed top to toe in black "ninja" outfits, descended on the town (and on sleeping families in Whakatane, Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch) and set up a roadblock at the old land confiscation line.

People on their way to work were ordered out of their cars, grandmothers were photographed holding numbers in front of their chests mugshot-style and little kids were terrified. Helicopters circled and people talked of a sniper leaning out as the police searched for their targets.


Further into the valley, doors were kicked in and people were ushered outside in their nighties and pyjamas. Some were made to kneel and had guns pointed at them while their homes were turned upside down.

To the people of Ruatoki, the raids repeated wrongs of the past.

This week, police decided not to prosecute 13 of the 17 remaining accused who faced charges under the Arms Act, after a Supreme Court ruling made some of the covertly gathered evidence inadmissable. In a statement, Crown solicitor Simon Moore SC said the decision to withdraw proceedings against the 13 who faced only firearms charges took into account the length of time since their arrest, the requirement for them to be tried separately and the court's "findings about the seriousness of their offending".

Iti, Maori sovereigntist Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Taranaki-based environmentalist and clarinet player Urs Signer and his partner Emily Bailey still face charges of being in an organised criminal group and firearms charges, to be heard in February. The reasons for the Supreme Court ruling remain suppressed.

In a further legal move, the Crown is poised to allow the organised crime charges to be heard before a jury. It will apply next week to have earlier court rulings, that the case be heard by judge alone, set aside.

The case continues to twist and turn and baffle. Every time charges are dropped or reduced, sympathisers claim vindication and clamour for the remaining charges to be thrown out. Not helping is the suppression of evidence such as the recorded conversations - though there have been breaches.

During a Herald visit after the raids a rag-tag group of Mongrel Mob youths cracked up when asked about camouflaged men in training camps and rumours of napalm and explosions.

"That's where they train our young fullas to use the taiaha [a traditional wooden weapon], up there," one said.

Iti was known for running courses like this, they said, and sure, he and others could look scary to outsiders who did not understand Tuhoe life. The youth then giggled "you're lucky they weren't running around with no pants on".

If there was an explosion, he reckoned it was probably someone's gas fire exploding. Everyone had guns - wild pigs are not only dangerous but a staple food. The forest was the people's freezer, the youth said: "If you can't afford to go to Pak'N Save, you go up there."

Locals explained allegations of molotov cocktails by saying the petrol station had closed down so people often stored petrol in containers.

Police originally wanted to lay charges under the new Terrorism Suppression Act, which made planning a terrorist act or making a "credible threat" illegal, even if the act was not carried out. There are thresholds for using the legislation - including that an act has to be intended to cause a particular outcome, and pose a serious risk to health or safety, destruction, environmental damage or major economic loss. There must be an intention to induce terror.

But three weeks after the raids, Solicitor General David Collins found the allegations - mostly relating to firearms - did not fall within the guidelines of terror-related crimes. He criticised the new law as "unnecessarily complex, incoherent and almost impossible to apply" to alleged instances of domestic terrorism in New Zealand.

Some legal experts warned at the time that the decision meant some of the covertly gathered evidence would be inadmissable for firearms offences under the Arms Act.

But Auckland University associate law professor Scott Optican says neither Collins' decision on the terrorism act charges nor the latest Supreme Court ruling necessarily reflect on the police thinking which led to the raids.

"In disallowing some of the evidence because of the method by which it was gathered, the Supreme Court is not expressing any opinion on the merits of the case or the sufficiency of the evidence," Optican told the Weekend Herald. He says assessment of the quality of the case must wait for the trial, beginning in February.

The 155-page affidavit used to justify the police raids also remains suppressed. Though we can't reveal the details, the transcripts of hundreds of hours of bugged conversations and covert surveillance records include material ranging from the "very disturbing", as Collins said at the time, to the comical and innocuous (much of it about food).

Here's a snippet of a discussion about an intercepted communication which featured in Operation 8, the film about the raids which has screened around the country. It's between Collins, Law Commission deputy president Warren Young and High Court judge Justice Randerson during a contempt of court case which followed publication by Fairfax newspapers of some of the suppressed material.

Young: They certainly talked about the possibility of killing people, assassinating the Prime Minister, taking action against George Bush, but those were expressed in extravagant and vague language. There was no evidence of any planning at all.

Collins: There is reference made to talk of assassinating President Bush. How was that to be achieved in the minds of those whose conversations were being intercepted?

Young: As I recall, by catapulting a bus on to George Bush's head.

Justice Randerson: By catapulting a bus on to George Bush's head.

Collins: And another instance was catapulting a cow on to his ...

Randerson: Just pause.

Much of the material is open to interpretation. Lawyer Peter Williams, hired by Tuhoe to investigate suing over the raids, noted: "People say things that are not always meant to be taken seriously."

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager wrote that some of the communications amounted to "an incoherent scattering of radical big talk".

Another obstacle for the police, in PR terms, was what the raids actually netted. As Solicitor-General Collins found, the alleged firearms offences were insufficient to use the Terrorism Suppression Act.

Then there are the accused. Tame Iti is the best-known - while police were watching him in 2006 and 2007 he was getting media attention for his paintings on display at an Auckland gallery and his friendship with arts patron Jenny Gibbs. He told the Tuhoe story on stage in Lemi Ponifasio's production Tempest and - while on bail in 2008 - was allowed to tour Europe in Tempest II. The dance-performance dwelt on "native sovereignty and unlawful detention in a post-9/11 world".

Though he has a long list of theatrical stunts - such as setting up a Tuhoe embassy in a tent outside Parliament - Iti is best-known for a firearms conviction relating to when he shot the New Zealand flag in 2005 on a Ruatoki marae. This was in the context of an emotional recreation for Waitangi Tribunal members of the Crown's historic abuses against Tuhoe, which included the "scorched earth policy" where homes and crops were burned and people starved and murdered.

Others arrested included members of a Wellington anarchist group, environmental activists, peace activists and others who were "known to police".

Unionist Matt McCarten knew some and found it incredible they were deemed terrorists, he wrote in his Herald on Sunday column. "They are a mixture of Maori sovereigntists, environmental campaigners, anarchist political activists and, admittedly, a few oddballs."

One was Jamie Lockett, a 46-year-old who boasted of being "the most trespassed man in New Zealand". He had goaded police for years and was regularly before the courts, but mostly he got off. There had been encounters at the 2006 Waitangi Day celebrations and one involving Helen Clark at an Auckland Cup race meeting.

Lockett likened what went on at the camps to "basic boy scout stuff" where people learned bush survival, orienteering skills and teamwork. He said participants were aware police were monitoring their activities.

Te Rangikaiwhiria "Whiri" Kemara - who still faces firearms and organised crime charges along with Iti, Signer and Bailey - had blogged on websites in support of Iti's shooting of the flag. He wrote that "talk is cheap" in relation to issues of sovereignty and that "sovereignties have only ever changed hands or [been] reinforced at the edge of a sword, bayonet or bombs". He was known to be handy with a computer.

Another arrested was anti-war protester Valerie Morse, convicted of offensive behaviour for burning the flag at the 2007 Anzac Day dawn service in Wellington, though the conviction was overturned earlier this year.

Then there was Rongomai Pero Bailey, a 28-year-old who had attended camps in the Ureweras and who told friends who posted bail he had never held a gun in his life. Charges against him were thrown out in 2008 for insufficient evidence.

Two others were Taranaki environmental activist couple Signer and Bailey.

Iti, Kemara, Signer and Bailey are jointly charged with participation in an organised criminal group. They also jointly face seven charges under the Arms Act of unlawful possession of firearms and two of possessing molotov cocktails.

Bailey and Signer are charged with unlawful possession of a firearm on October 15 in Wellington.

Iti is charged with unlawful possession of three firearms in Ruatoki on the same day.

Kemara faces one charge of possession of six firearms on October 15.

Come February, a jury will finally be able to weigh up the seriousness of the charges.

Strange bedfellows

Are the recorded conversations the equivalent of pub talk or a serious threat? The verdicts of media commentators have created strange bedfellows and broken old alliances: Ross Meurant, who headed the police Red Squad during the 1981 Springbok tour, said police self-assessment was vulnerable to "self hype" and self-justification.

"I suspect that other than a few illegal firearms charges, nothing more than remote charges of conspiracy will emerge."

1981 protest leader John Minto said police were "trying to get the public to ignore the million-mile gap between a bullshit conversation in a car and a credible threat to life."

But another veteran activist, Chris Trotter, found the notion of Tuhoe separatists and eco-anarchists joining forces to plan insurrection "all too plausible" and supported the actions of police commissioner Howard Broad. Trotter was pilloried for this but had support from columnist and former Act MP Deborah Coddington, who found the "hard evidence" in the police affidavit "terrifying".