Napalm, guns & underwear

On 15 October 2007, my partner was arrested for terrorism. This came as a shock, as I hadn’t been aware of any nefarious activities. This sense of disbelief continued in the years that followed, during which we hoped the charges would be dropped and my partner would avoid prison.

My partner was placed under strict bail conditions, including being banned from leaving Aotearoa New Zealand. We were under constant surveillance and were regularly followed by police. We lived with the threat of impending jail for nearly five years, until just after the birth of our first child. I gave birth having carefully set myself up in a sharehouse with girlfriends and relatives, fearful that I would be forced to raise my child alone.

When my partner was first arrested, I was utterly confounded. I knew he wasn’t hiding a machine gun under his bed … so what had he done to warrant such a charge? At that time, no-one in Aotearoa New Zealand had ever been prosecuted for a terrorism-related offence. Indeed, my partner was one of the first people charged under the newly created Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. This meant that he and his co-accused were effectively guinea pigs: there were no legal precedents, and therefore no clear indication of what might happen when he went to trial. All we knew for sure was that the defendants – including my partner and his family – were repeatedly denied bail. And that, under this new law, they were facing up to twenty years in prison.

In that first week following the arrests I couldn’t get through to my partner. No-one could, not even his lawyer. The remand prison saw no reason to even pass on legal communications. The usual human rights conventions we take for granted did not seem to apply (they still don’t, under current counter-terrorism laws in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand). Then prime minister Helen Clark publicly referred to the defendants as ‘terrorists’, thus undermining their right to a fair trial. There were rumours the government was planning to send the defendants to Guantanamo Bay.

My partner is an environmentalist and a social justice activist. He is also Māori. He had organised protests when a proposed motorway extension threatened heritage buildings. He had opposed the logging of indigenous forests, and tried to save a rare native snail threatened by coal mining. (The motorway went through, while the logging was successfully halted; even so, the snail population was decimated.)

My partner had been arrested before for trespass, as part of the protest action against the motorway, while eating an orange. Another time, for opposing the logging of a native forest, dressed as a giant chicken (he maintains he was a native bird). His activism seemed benign, as acceptable and expected as my own – until suddenly it didn’t.

The morning of my partner’s arrest for terrorism, I was working. I received a call from another local activist who said I should come to the courthouse. ‘What had he been arrested for?’ I asked. She paused, and in her pause I intuited many unpleasant things. ‘Have you seen the news?’ she asked. No, I hadn’t. She told me it was pretty bad. Somehow I arranged to leave work. I remember running.

It was at the courthouse that I first learnt the alleged crime: ‘terrorism’. I learnt also that it wasn’t just my partner in jail, but also my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law and her partner. Four of them had been seized in what became known as ‘Operation eight’. The defendants were referred to as ‘the Urewera eighteen’, then ‘the Urewera seventeen’ and eventually, as the Crown’s case progressively unravelled, simply ‘the four’.

There was a media furore. Aotearoa New Zealand had never had any real terrorists before, and the gusto with which the media embraced these new celebrities would have been humorous, had the coverage not also been racist, sensationalist and unjust. The raids became the ‘terror raids’. There were unsubstantiated reports of intended ‘IRA-style bombings’. There were claims the ‘terrorists’ had been manufacturing napalm and planning to assassinate George W Bush on his next state visit.

The picture being drawn was of conspiracy, of an active terrorist cell. The group was, according to police, headed by seasoned activist Tame Iti, and its intention was to gain sovereignty for Tūhoe by force if necessary. In other words, they had been preparing for combat. The Crown tried to prove the cell’s existence simply by demonstrating association between members.

Here is a fun list of things that were confiscated by the police in support of their case:

  • A box of avocados, from a community house in Wellington, which the police seemed to think were hand grenades, even after it was pointed out that they were fruit
  • My partner’s favourite duffel coat (returned after five years)
  • A pair of camouflage underwear owned by my brother-in-law
  • Notes for a chemical reaction my partner had written in 1997 while at university
  • My sister-in-law’s dog
  • ‘Revolutionary’ pamphlets, like those you would find in any community house where anarchists meet
  • Phone lists from the walls of sharehouses
  • Four unregistered firearms
  • All of my partner’s politics textbooks from university

But a lot of other things the police did weren’t quite so fun. They held my partner’s flatmates for ten hours while they rifled through their drawers (though they allowed my partner to make everyone a cup of tea, even as they were ripping the stuffing out of the furniture). They traumatised the occupants of a community house in Able Street, Wellington, by smashing through the door and a side window (though they allowed one of the people to make an apple crumble as the property was searched).

Despite the machine guns and post-traumatic stress, the violence of these raids were on the minor end of the scale, compared to what the police enacted on the Māori community of Rūātoki, where 300 police in full riot gear descended in force, locking down the village and ordering children and elderly people from their beds at gunpoint. Police helicopters flew overhead, and the Armed Offenders Squad and the Special Tactics Group erected roadblocks on the road into Tūhoe land. A school bus was boarded and the children questioned. Women and children were locked in sheds and held for up to nine hours without food and water. Houses and belongings were violently and destructively searched; vehicles were stopped, inspected and photographed. Women were subjected to intimate body searches. One of these women – only seventeen at the time – was searched in full view of the public.

Incredibly, many Tūhoe were detained and interrogated on the boundary line marking the confiscation of their lands by the Crown in the 1860s. In the traditional Māori world view, as with many indigenous cultures, time is not necessarily linear: the past is not separate from the present, nor is it ‘finished’. The aukati (boundary line) is a living marker for Tūhoe: it is part of the landscape, a signifier of dispossession, oppression and state-imposed violence. The police chose to set up their interrogation point on that very line.

In his book Terror in Our Midst? Searching for Terrorism in Aotearoa New Zealand, Danny Keenan cites a series of interviews conducted with Tūhoe and Māori about the raids. Many interviewees express the idea that Māori ‘would always bear the brunt of the anti-terrorism legislation’. The drivers of such actions were not perceived to be the police, but the government.

That those serving as test subjects for the new Act were considered Māori extremists was not lost on their supporters. Despite the fact that many pākehā (people of European descent) were arrested in the raids, the defendants were portrayed as Māori radicals. Until 2007, notable ‘terrorist’ events in Aotearoa New Zealand numbered exactly four. These include the bombing of a railway bridge in 1951 over an industrial dispute, the bombing of a computer centre in 1982 by lone anarchist Neil Roberts, and a bombing at Wellington Trades Hall in 1984, in which the building’s caretaker, Ernie Abbott, died. These events were not motivated by religion or race, and though characterised variously as terrorist acts, were not part of an international discourse that posited terrorism itself as the enemy. The last, of course, was the bombing of a Greenpeace ship by French agents in 1985. But there was no history of Māori ever being credited with a terrorist act.

At the time of the 2007 raids, several militant non-Māori, pākehā groups were openly active on the South Island. Members of a skinhead gang, the Fourth Reich, had been responsible for several race-related murders. The New Zealand National Front was also active, calling itself a political party. One of The New Zealand National Front’s stated aims is to stop the country becoming ‘a colony of China’. Though the size and influence of these neo-Nazi groups is limited, they are much more suitable candidates for an operation like the one my partner was subjected to – their participants wear uniforms, undertake open training sessions and call new members ‘recruits’. But these groups weren’t targeted.

In his preface to Keenan’s book, lawyer Moana Jackson notes how indigenous peoples have always been ‘defined as a threat whenever they have questioned their dispossession or whenever their colonisers wanted to keep them in a position of political powerlessness and economic inequality’. In an interview in the New Zealand Listener, Jackson spoke from his own personal experience: ‘Even under the pre-existing laws, members of my family have been under surveillance. My brother Syd had his house searched regularly. This is nothing new.’

For Māori, for whom the memory of colonisation is current, it was unsurprising that indigenous folk were targeted when the state decided to test its new law. This is because the raids constituted an ongoing iteration of colonisation. Tūhoe were held on their own confiscation line by armed state forces; for them, this was history neatly re-enacting itself. It just so happened that this time Tūhoe’s emphasis on self-determination had been appropriated into a wider narrative – the global ‘War on Terror’.

Of course, such phrases – ‘War on Terror’, ‘War on Drugs’ and so on – are always euphemistic. ‘Terror’ is a meaningless label, a construct within whose scaffolding exists the complex workings of a global oil economy, a US defence plan that relies on conflict to feed economic growth, and powerful discourses that position the ‘liberated’ West as the guardians of freedom and democracy. In such rhetoric, the ‘terrorists’ are always religiously, culturally or ethnically ‘other’ to those defining them as such – they are Muslim, or indigenous, or people of colour.

And here we must unpack the scope and wording of such policies as the Terrorism Suppression Act. Counter-terrorism legislation is not very interesting to read so I’ll summarise some of the main points. Under this law, terrorism is constituted as ‘an act … carried out for the purpose of advancing an ideological, political, or religious cause’ with the following intention:

(a) to induce terror in a civilian population; or

(b) to unduly compel or to force a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.

That last part is fascinating. Why? Because people who voice dissent and try to force a government to do or not do something are called protestors. Any attempt to try such crimes in court would hinge on whether the kind of compelling the protestors was doing was ‘undue’ or not. An indigenous population who acts to stop government land seizures could fall into this category. The same indigenous community, when faced with land-polluting acts like fracking or mining, could also fit this definition if they sought to force the state to desist.

Terrorist acts, as defined in this legislation, have particular outcomes: for example, serious risk to the health or safety of a population, interference with infrastructure, or serious destruction of property. Again, the scope is very broad, and many protest actions would fit the bill. Animal rights activists, for example, who object to battery farming and proceed to harm company property could be deemed a terrorist group. Also listed is the intent to cause the death of, or bodily injury to, one or more persons. The neo-fascist Fourth Reich, mentioned above, has been responsible for numerous killings, always with a racial motivation, but has never been designated a terrorist group.

Luckily for me and my family, the Terrorism Suppression Act was dropped as a means of prosecuting the defendants about a month after the initial raids. A press release from then solicitor-general David Collins explained his decision:

I have advised the commissioner that I am unable to authorise the prosecutions that have been sought under the Terrorism Suppression Act. There is insufficient evidence to establish to the very high standard required that a group or entity was planning or preparing to commit a terrorist act, as that term is defined in the legislation.

He was later reported as saying that ‘the Act was almost impossible to apply to domestic terrorism in New Zealand as it was too complex’. This criticism led to the Act being amended in 2007. It also meant that the majority of the two years’ worth of surveillance collected by police in aid of their case was inadmissible in court.

But what did the Crown’s case consist of? Utilising the increased powers provided under the Act, police undertook extensive surveillance of Māori, environmental and social justice activists prior to the raids (it also continued throughout the trial). This included the use of hidden cameras, the bugging of vehicles and homes, the monitoring of email and online communications, and potentially the placement of informants in activist groups.

The 2007 raids indicated three important shifts in the political state of Aotearoa New Zealand. The first was a violent reassertion of the state’s control over Māori welfare, land and rights. In the 1970s, indigenous protests contributed to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, intended to hear Māori land claims and historical grievances. National pressure resulted in Te Reo being recognised as an official language, and New Zealand officially became ‘a bicultural nation’. But the 2007 raids demonstrated a disregard for basic human rights, specifically for Māori. Years after the raids, the police and government made formal apologies to Tūhoe. But the police’s actions weren’t just a throwback to the bad old colonial days; they were colonisation made new, with the original colonial force apprehending Tūhoe on the same site. Things played out differently in my partner’s nice white suburb, where the raids were carried out in private; the police didn’t hold schoolchildren at gunpoint or subject them to body searches.

The second shift reflected Aotearoa New Zealand’s transformation into a country with a culture of surveillance, where authorities use smart phones and computers to monitor citizens. This year three prisoner rights activists have complained to the Independent Police Conduct Authority because of what they see to be unjustified surveillance. Sophie Morgan, one of these activists, told Vice that the bugging of her electronic devices has been a huge invasion of privacy: ‘It’s pretty disturbing to know that all this time, the police have been listening in to all kinds of personal conversations. I do really feel violated by that.’ I agree. Imagine this scenario for just a moment – every phone call and text message being recorded, listened to, annotated and summarised by a member of the police.

Beyond the cringe and feelings of paranoia is a wider issue. Former Green Party leader Russel Norman, who spent several years sitting on the Intelligence and Security Committee, said that ‘there is absolutely no question [that increasing surveillance powers] are eroding civil liberties in New Zealand. Each of these laws that they passed have restricted democratic space and given more power to engage in widespread surveillance.’ Surveillance undermines citizens’ rights to physically mobilise, voice dissent, or even just hold radical political views without the risk of prosecution and persecution.

The third shift indicates Aotearoa New Zealand’s eagerness to endorse US policies on the ‘War on Terror’. After 9/11, the government rushed to introduce new legislation. The result was the Terrorism Suppression Act, pushed through with urgency as part of the national response to Bush’s call to arms. The law was later described by Collins as ‘incoherent’, no doubt a result of the speed with which it was drafted and passed. Other countries also introduced new counter-terrorism legislation or reinforced existing laws, but New Zealand led the charge, perhaps wishing to ingratiate itself with the US on an international stage.

The week of my partner’s arrest, he was added to an international terror suspect list, administered by US authorities. Though my partner’s charges were dropped and he has no criminal record, his name will never be removed from the list. My partner and I will not be able to travel anywhere near the US with our family or alone, probably for the rest of our lives.

The most interesting thing for me has been tracing the relationships of cause and effect from an event in a remote country to a very personal impact on me and my family. On 11 September 2001, two towers fall in America. In 2002, the Terrorist Suppression Act is passed in New Zealand, granting authorities the power to search, surveil and detain citizens with unprecedented freedom. The Act increases the number of police in the now full-time Special Tactics Group, formally the Anti-Terrorist Squad, a unit acting under the advice of the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee. As one of their implicit aims is to root out domestic terrorism, it follows that such a squad would go looking for the ‘terrorists’ in our midst. It began carrying out surveillance on a number of activists, including my family, and the end result was the 2007 raids.

Of the eighteen people originally arrested, only four went to trial in 2012. By that time the terrorism charge had been downgraded to one of belonging to an organised criminal group, but the jury didn’t find sufficient evidence to convict. After five years, 60,000 pages of evidence and $6 million dollars of taxpayer money, the remaining defendants were found guilty on firearms charges – two of them were sentenced to jail and two were placed on home detention.

The ‘napalm’ mentioned in the early newspaper reports turned out to be a chemical equation scribbled down by my partner at university. The plans to assassinate Bush were revealed to be a flippant comment by my brother-in-law, in a private conversation in a car, in which he suggested catapulting a bus at the president’s head during his visit. Someone answered that they could perhaps shoot a laser beam at his plane. And the ‘guerrillas in the mist’ – that is, the supposed military training camps – were actually community members teaching Māori bush lore and tikanga (custom).

But there was certainly radical thinking going on, and passionate talk of Māori sovereignty and self-rule. This was what the Crown’s case rested on: the group’s intention to oppose the government. If the state had been able to prove it, then my partner and relatives would probably be in jail, and I would have brought up my first child under very different circumstances. The police wanted to demonstrate through surveillance that this group of activists were harbouring seditious thoughts. But if they had been – setting aside the supposed napalm and the bombs and the camouflage underpants – would this have been so wrong? The defence team was at pains to emphasise that no actual terrorist acts had been committed. As lawyer Jeremy Bioletti pointed out, ‘There are no thought crimes in New Zealand, not yet.’

But current counter-terrorism legislation in New Zealand and Australia provide a framework for imprisoning people for exactly that – thought crimes.

I sometimes still think my phone is being tapped, and when my partner and I cross a national border, I hold my breath while they sort out the ‘glitches’ with his passport. I would like to teach our children to speak out in defence of those who cannot, but I must also teach them to be more careful than ever, because someone is always listening.




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Michalia Arathimos

Michalia Arathimos has published work in Westerly, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4, Sport and Turbine. Her debut novel, Aukati / Boundary Line, was published in 2019 by Mākaro Press. She is currently Overland’s fiction reviewer.

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