Friday, November 09, 2007

A humiliating fiasco

That's the only way to describe the Solicitor-General's decision [PDF] that terrorism charges could not be brought against the Urewera 17. The police spent over a year on the case, tapped people's phones, conducted covert surveillance, and capped it off with a series of dramatic armed raids. In the process, they collected "many hundreds of pages of intercepted communications, a large number of photographs... as well as video footage of events observed by the Police". And at the end of it all, the evidence is insufficient. There ought to be some very red faces at police headquarters tonight.

Oh, but it's not the fault of the police, according to the Solicitor-General, but of the law, which is "unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and, as a result, almost impossible to apply". Reading between the lines (and looking at Graeme Edgeler's excellent summary here), the key problem is uncertainty over whether a group is "an entity that carries out, or participates in the carrying out of, 1 or more terrorist acts". But while it would be immensely convenient for the police if they could just point the finger, cry "witch!terrorist!", and then essentially criminalise people based on their say-so, that's not the way things are done in a democracy which respects human rights and the rule of law. In such a country, the police should at least have to prove that such a group posed a credible threat - and I'm sorry, but the carefully leaked allegations in this case (that Bush, Clark and Key were possible 'targets') would not be considered "credible" by anyone outside the SIS funny farm.

The real problem seems to be that the police approached this as a terrorism case from the get-go. They (or their friends in the SIS, who remember were behind the scenes in this case) saw brown people with guns and a motley collection of reds and greens - traditional enemies, according to their insular, judgemental, socially conservative and intellectually isolated culture - and went "terrorists". Another reason may have been that terrorism warrants are a virtual blank cheque, while those obtained for a serious violent offence (such as conspiracy to murder) are far more restrictive. But by doing so, and collecting their evidence under such warrants, they effectively forfeited their chance of prosecuting for an ordinary offence. So, even if their allegations of conspiracies to murder are something more than a paranoid's interpretation of people mouthing off, all they're left with at the end of the day are firearms offences, which are pretty dodgy to start with (and in fact, even dodgier than that - they're alleging collective unlawful possession, which means some of those charged are not ever alleged to have touched a gun, only been in the vicinity of one owned by someone the police didn't like (and whose possession is hence "unlawful")).

In other words, even if they didn't wrongly target innocent people (a position with a certain amount of evidence to support it), their prejudices caused them to screw up big time. And either way, it is simply unacceptable. Heads have to roll.

The lesson in all of this is simple: rather than being prosecuted under special laws, terrorists should be prosecuted under ordinary criminal law. That's what they are anyway - under the existing definition, every act of "terrorism" is an act of murder, assault, criminal damage, criminal nuisance, or a violation of biosecurity law, and every planned act of terrorism a conspiracy to do one or more of the above. It's not as sexy, and you can't use the fear of terrorism to browbeat judges into giving you a warrant, but the law and evidentiary requirements are well understood, and there's consequently far less chance of the police fucking it up (there's also less chance of the police getting carried away with the "terrorism" word and targeting the innocent - or rather, more chance of someone noticing that their case is bullshit). And when the biggest danger in New Zealand is not being blown up by terrorists, but being targeted by overenthusiastic police on a witch-hunt, we'd all be a lot safer if they approached things that way.