Police handling of protests against Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland last year has been the subject of a long-running parliamentary inquiry. VERNON SMALL examines the findings.

It was probably the most one-sided protest New Zealand has seen.

Christchurch Boys High seventh-former Lee Cunliffe stood outside his school with two placards and a couple of mates trying to send a message to the President of the world's most populous country.

But his efforts were frustrated by an over-reaction so absurd that it smacked more of the Keystone Cops than an appropriate police response.

The incident, played out in the leafy Christchurch suburb of Fendalton on September 15 last year has come to symbolise the ludicrous lengths police went to to protect the "dignity" of Chinese President Jiang Zemin during his visit to New Zealand for the Apec summit.

At 8.15 am, an hour before Mr Jiang was due, Lee Cunliffe turned up with his banners reading "Save Tibet" and "Honk for a free Tibet."

Two Chinese protocol officers approached and asked what he was doing. Several police officers then came up and, he said, laughed at him, told him his protest was stupid and that he would have to take the sign down before the President arrived.

They stood in front of him, threatened him with arrest and then moved him across the road, where two other students joined him.

Police asked for their signs and said they should move and be escorted back to school. When they refused, they were hemmed in by an illegally parked 10-tonne bus and two vans, blocking their view of the road entirely.

About 10 police were standing nearby, so the students stayed put in their vehicular jail. They did not see President Jiang, and he did not see them.

The chairwoman of the parliamentary investigating committee, Janet Mackey, said Lee Cunliffe's treatment had had a significant impact on members of her panel.

"It was such an extreme example of overbearing police tactics, it was so blatant that it opened our eyes to the decision-making in other areas.

"One poor little blue-kneed schoolboy who had already had to remove his jacket and tie on a freezing cold morning having three vehicles parked around him. In no way could he be construed as a threat to the Chinese President."

The committee's report is highly critical of police actions and credibility, and recommends changes to the Police Act and police operating instructions dealing with demonstrations and communications with visiting dignitaries.

Among its findings, it said police were not always impartial, did not give due weight to the right to protest and have that protest heard, infringed fundamental civil rights and at times gave inconsistent evidence.

Discrepancies tended to undermine the credibility of police evidence, and the committee was concerned that the police took too "casual" an approach to accuracy.

The committee was particularly concerned at the accidental wiping by police of crucial video footage of a protest outside the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Christchurch on September 14.

There were no communication logs covering events outside Government House in Auckland, and the committee had initial difficulty getting other evidence.

"We were not impressed with the attitude of some senior police officers to the discrepancies in their evidence, and contradictions with video evidence, all given under oath," the report said.

The committee found the evidence of the police officer at the site of Lee Cunliffe's protest, Acting Sergeant John Armstrong, "unconvincing and inaccurate."

On the broader front, the committee found that the police did not have a predetermined strategy to suppress Free Tibet protests.

In Auckland the response varied. In Wellington there appeared to have been an explicit predetermined intention to prevent Mr Jiang from unwanted exposure to protesters.

Operational instructions in Wellington had stated that the President "had a certain sensitivity in respect of both visible and audible protest" and police would "make every effort to minimise the impact of protest" on his visit.

Police in Christchurch took an intermediate (although still unacceptable) approach by using buses and sirens to block a protest that had delayed the start of the state dinner the evening before Lee Cunliffe's protest.

Acting Sergeant Armstrong said in an internal report that at a debriefing after the state dinner, "we were informed that the policy towards protesters was now to be that they were not to be seen or heard by the President and that they were to be arrested or removed wherever justifiable."

The committee found that Free Tibet protesters were targeted over other groups, and buses and sirens were used to frustrate protest.

Although there was no nation-wide policy to use arrest to shut down and limit protest, "we do consider there is evidence of a police strategy to use arrest to remove protesters from a particular location, without proper grounds," the committee found.

There was also evidence of police threatening protesters with arrest if they did not comply with police directions, even when the protesters were within their rights to refuse.

The committee did hear from police who admitted that responses had at times been inappropriate. Commissioner Rob Robinson told the MPs that on occasions the police did not strike the right balance between protecting citizens' rights and freedoms and carrying out their legal responsibilities.

However, some frontline staff still insisted that their decisions were appropriate.

The inquiry was carried out by Mrs Mackey (Labour), Wayne Mapp (National), Stephen Franks (Act), Kevin Campbell (Alliance) and Nandor Tanczos (Greens).

Mrs Mackey yesterday criticised police for their attitude to the committee and for some of their evidence.

Police appeared to think that the inquiry was not "terribly important" she said.

"We had to really drag evidence out. We requested things, we had to wait, and sometimes we had police officers who just stood up and swore that this was what had happened and then we found out that they weren't actually there."

She said that when she asked the officer in charge at Christchurch Boys if he was saying the bus just happened to come out of nowhere, cross the centre line and park on the wrong side of the road and it was purely by coincidence that it was in front of a protester, he said, "Yes."

The committee found that protecting freedom of expression meant that visiting dignitaries could expect a robust expression of views.

"We consider that, in the New Zealand context, protection of dignity does not require that a head of state be prevented from seeing messages opposed to his or her political beliefs or from being offended by protests."

But leaders should not be humiliated or subjected to messages that would be defamatory or otherwise illegal.

"In the case in question, the police did more than was necessary to protect the dignity of the President."

Perhaps the most politically charged element of the whole visit was the suggestion that the Prime Minister of the day, Jenny Shipley, had become involved in the police actions ahead of the Christchurch state banquet, which was delayed by 90 minutes when President Jiang refused to appear while protesters were present.

The MPs found that there was no evidence of express or implied threats to police to move protesters back around the corner from the Hotel Grand Chancellor.

But the committee warned that it was important at such times to ensure that the boundaries were not blurred.

A majority felt that the police did not have grounds to move the protesters, and that their use of buses and sirens was unjustified, although not necessarily unlawful.

There were plenty of people involved in the protests against President Jiang, but in the end the strongest impact was from that protest outside Christchurch Boys High on a cool spring morning.

Not bad for one schoolboy with two placards and a couple of mates.