In October 2007 police stormed homes in a number of cities and laid siege to the Maori town of Ruatoki in the Urewera region, homeland of the Tuhoe iwi (tribe). The raids and frame-up sparked protests across New Zealand.
No trial date has been set for three other defendants who are part of the Urewera 18. In addition to charges of breaching the Arms Act brought against all 15 going to trial, prominent Tuhoe activist Tame Iti and four others also face indictments for participating in an organised criminal group.
In a March 19 interview, Valerie Morse, who helps edit a defense newsletter in Wellington, described how in the early hours of October 15, 2007, a police squad arrested her and seized her computer, paper files, books, and photos. In what is officially called Operation 8, more than 300 cops raided some 60 homes in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, and elsewhere that day.
Ruatoki was targeted for the biggest assault. Heavily armed and balaclava-clad officers set up roadblocks, harassed occupants of a school bus and other vehicles, and rampaged through homes. A police helicopter with a sniper on board flew overhead.
That same morning 20 Armed Offenders Squad cops seized Tame Iti in the nearby town of Whakatane, forcing him to lie down at gunpoint. Iti has been a figure in Maori rights fights for more than four decades.
The Tuhoe people call for the government to return a large national park in the Urewera region to tribal ownership. Most Tuhoe lands were seized by the New Zealand government in a bloody military invasion in the 1860s. The confiscation line marking that land grab also demarcated police roadblocks on the day of the terror raids.
Operation 8 was presented as an anti-terrorism action under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA). Using warrants under the TSA, police shot videos, bugged houses and cars, and tapped text messages and phone calls to prepare the prosecutions.
The government alleges that camps in the rugged Urewera bush, a well-known hunting area, were used for firearms training. Police Commissioner Howard Broad claimed the cops acted in the interests of public safety to halt military-style training.
Helen Clarke, then Labour Party prime minister, said there was paramilitary training in the Ureweras by disaffected people who at the very least have illicitly used firearms, constructed Molotov cocktails, and trained themselves in how to use napalm.
Most of those arrested were jailed. Upon release nearly a month later, they faced curfews, police reporting requirements, and bans from associating with each other. Overseas travel was subject to veto, and travel to the Urewera valley restricted. Most such conditions have since been eased, Morse told the Militant.
Protests condemn cop raids
Four days after the raids, 1,000 people rallied in protest in Whakatane. We are not terrorists, we have been terrorised, one sign read. In following weeks, Tuhoe representatives led marches in Rotorua, Wellington, and Auckland. Maori Party Members of Parliament criticized the raids.
In face of the furor, while saying the operation ended some very disturbing activities, Solicitor General David Collins ruled in November 2007 that charges under the terrorism act would not hold water. This decision was a huge victory for us, said Morse, but the police continued to press the frame-up using the Arms Act. Under that act, she said, a defendant must prove his or her innocence, turning on its head the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Nor did the solicitor-generals ruling stop the cops from basing their case on material gathered under the TSA. Defense attempts to strike such evidence have been rejected by the Court of Appeal. The defendants have challenged that decision in the Supreme Court.
Tens of thousands of pages of police documents are also subject to suppression orders, hindering defendants efforts to prepare their defense and win support. Moreover, said Morse, the Auckland High Court ruled late last year that the accused cannot choose a jury trial, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal March 29.
Protesting this violation of basic rights, the October 15th Solidarity Committee said the prosecution has dragged out the case in order to wear down the defendants and force them into long and expensive legal battles in the hope that the public will forget about the case and ultimately to force the defendants to plead guilty to end this nightmare.
Most of the accused are relying on lawyers provided under the governments legal aid scheme, Morse said. The cost of this supposedly free service can be charged to defendants if they have a car, a house, or some other asset, she said.
Opponents of the frame-up are planning to organize pickets during the trial. More information about the case, a key front in the fight against government attacks on workers rights, can be found at http://october15thsolidarity.info.
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