Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sedition by Example XXII: Christopher Russell

(An occasional series chronicling the uses and abuses of our archaic law of sedition)

Last year, I noted that police had recently laid a charge of sedition against a Rotorua youth. I recently submitted an Official Information Act request seeking the details of the case, and received a response today.

The defendant was Christopher Russell, a 17-year old youth. He had written a racist essay entitled "Whites Only", which was read out in class, and was subsequently bullied by his classmates because of his views. He responded by sending "an obscenity-littered email" to the New Zealand Herald threatening a Columbine-style school massacre:

The email to the NZ Herald stated Russell was about to become more famous than the Columbine killers - "The murders I do ... shall be greater than those at Columbine."

He claimed a hatred for Maori who beat him up, and black people.

"If black people want to hurt me or insult me then they should be the first to die."

A second email the next day stated that "on October 18 everyone will feel my pain".

Bombs would be used in the massacre, he said.

"I am sick and tired of the abuse I get every day."

He detailed how he would also kill "popular kids who exclude me from everything" and signed off with the pseudonym "Chris Stalin".

For this, he was charged with threatening to kill and sedition. Here's what the police have to say about the latter charge:

The charge of sedition (that had been laid pursuant to Section 84 (b): Crimes Act 1961 ["publication of seditious documents" - I/S]) - was withdrawn. The original decision to lay that charge was made by a senior CIB supervisor, who was the acting Officer in Charge of the Rotorua CIB at the time. Notwithstanding the fact that the charge was withdrawn, the Police are satisfied that there was evidence to establish a prima facie case. Evidence to support that charge included correspondence that Christopher Russell had sent to a major newspaper. In that correspondence Russell stated that he intended to kill an unspecified number of people - based on their ethnicity. His efforts to have his views published in a major newspaper, in the context outlined in his letter, constituted a prima facie attempt to encourage racial hatred and violence.

The decision to withdraw the charge was made by the Crown Prosecutor, in consultation with police, following an indication from Russell's defence counsel that he would enter a plea guilty to the charge of threatening to kill, if the sedition charge was withdraw [sic].

Russell was subsequently sentenced to 200 hours community work and 18 months supervision, as well as required to undergo a psychological assessment and psychotherapy. At sentencing, the judge blamed the original essay and the emails on Russell's mental condition.

There is a troubling aspect to this, in that again sedition has been used in place of or in addition to other relevant charges (in this case, threatening to kill), meaning that police are going for the easier charge or (in this case) trying to charge twice for the same offence. But its also difficult to see how a sedition charge can be justified in this case. While I have not seen the emails, both relevant sections of the law (s81 (1) (c) and (e) - inciting violence or exciting hostility between different groups) seem to require an element of persuasion which is entirely lacking here. Saying "I am going to kill people" is not an "encouragement" - it is a threat, and ought to be prosecuted as such. In the end, it was - but the police's readiness to use sedition charges is not something we should be happy about.