Tuesday 29 May 2012

Terrorist or political prisoner?

Is Tame Iti really the bogeyman, the devious mastermind behind an elaborate plot to inflict pressure on political groups and potentially put innocent lives at risk?

Or is he a political prisoner, the hapless victim of a police-force trying to cover up a series of mistakes by pinning it on the veteran activist?

Well, it depends on who you listen to.

Ever since 300 police, that included the armed offenders and anti-terror squads, stormed properties across the country on 15 October, 2007, Iti has been the face of the Tuhoe Terror raids.

Police alleged Iti and 16 others had been involved in paramilitary training camps in the Urewera mountain range near Ruatoki in the eastern Bay of Plenty. They claimed the people attending the camp threw Molotov cocktails and fired semiautomatic rifles and pistols.

The police referred evidence gathered during the raids to the Solicitor-General to consider whether charges should be laid under the Terrorism Suppression Act.

However the Solicitor-General declined to press charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act, because of inadequacies of the legislation. According to Helen Clark, the Prime Minister at the time of the raids, one of the reasons police tried to lay charges under anti-terror legislation was because they could not use telephone interception evidence in prosecutions under the Arms Act.

Fast forward four years and Iti and three others were found guilty of six charges of unlawful possession of military-style firearms and Molotov cocktails at the training camps.

Iti and the man described as his “leftenant”, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, were sentenced to 2.5 years in jail last week. Their co-offenders Urs Signer and Emily Bailey had their sentences adjourned but home detention of nine months was signalled.

Since sentencing there has been much debate around the issue. Search Iti’s name on google news and you will find at least 90 articles relating to this situation. His face with the distinctive moko has stared out of television screens, flickered across websites and appeared on the pages of all of the major newspapers in the country. He has been the topic of many lunch time conversations and perhaps even for this period surpassed John Banks as the biggest news of the day.

The opinion and commentary has been diverse and covered the spectrum from the right-wing National Business Review to the pro-Maori Native Affairs but frustratingly still questions remain unanswered.

I have read many of the stories and watched a lot of the interviews and what I have been intrigued with is the choices that are being made in terms of representation.

The police are desperately trying to convince New Zealand that they were justified in what they did and the sentences handed down to Iti and Kemara proves it. Iti’s camp and Maori leaders are outraged by the sentence arguing it is harsh and the two men are being made scapegoats by the police.

Police commissioner Peter Marshall appeared on Native Affairs this week. His manner was conciliatory, while endorsing the police’s decision and behaviour.

He said police were forced to act because Iti and his group were a threat to the public’s safety.

“The definition of a terrorist under the Terrorism Suppression act is a group of people with a pre –disposition towards violence with a political agenda so it was in that context that there was concern.”

He said the investigation was worth it because the four people convicted of the firearm charges had never offered a proper reason for what they were doing in the Urewera.

Also appearing on the programme the editor of the National Business Review, Neville Gibson, reiterated points covered in this story.

Gibson said even though it had never been proven that Iti was involved in recruiting a “private militia” he was glad the police did what they did because he felt safer that those sorts of people were locked up.

“At least there has been a sentence and it is custodial.”

On the flip-side, Greens Party co-leader Metiria Turei, also appearing on Native Affairs, said the allegation of the foursome being involved in “private militia” was unproven because of a lack of evidence.

“It looks more like that because the powers granted under the Terrorism Suppression act they played FBI with the natives because they had those new powers and did so with these people here. Now much of the evidence they gathered was inadmissible.”

She was backed up by Auckland University law expert Khlee Quince who believed the sentence handed down to Iti and Kemara was harsh because irrelevant information was taken into consideration.

Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell had earlier appeared on the show and made an excellent point by highlighting the case of Bernard Shapiro.

Flavell said Shapiro’s case should have acted as a precendent in the sentencing of Iti and Kemara.

Convicted of seven firearm charges which included the unlawful possession of two military semi-automatic rifles, explosives, grenades and a grenade launcher, the Christchurch man received a sentence of a $5000 fine payable to the St John’s ambulance service.

No matter who you believe, I recko we still haven’t heard the whole story of what happened in those days leading up to 15 October, 2007 and no doubt there is still more to come in this saga so I, like many, will keep following it.

However if there is one thing I learnt working in the media industry and that is the old cliché of ‘Never believe everything you read’ is true and I will always keep it in mind, how about you?

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