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April 30, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Legal Terror

A beginner’s guide to the Urerewa Four and the Search and Surveillance Act.

In 2006 it came to the attention of the New Zealand police that “military style training camps” were being held on private land in the Urerewas, headed by Tuhoe iwi separatist Tame Iti. Attendees were taught how to use firearms and molotov cocktails. They included Pakeha anarchists and environmental activists. On October 15 2007, the police began a series of raids across the country, detaining sixteen people in connection with the camps. Four more were arrested later. Initially there was little protest from the rest of the country; citizens need to be protected from armed protesters.

But then the police accused the arrested of being terrorists. In turn, the police were accused of overreacting and harassment.

When the police tried to charge twelve defendants under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 they were unable to do so. The act was so poorly drafted it couldn’t be applied in domestic cases. Ultimately, eighteen were to be tried under the Arms Act 1983 instead. Five, including Iti, were also charged with participation in an organised criminal group. One defendant died, leaving four.

The police gathered much of their evidence using warrants under the Terrorism Suppression Act but, because they could not press charges under the act, the evidence was unusable. The law at the time of the investigation also provided no provision for police to lawfully place surveillance cameras on private land. They did it anyway—without a warrant. Courts sometimes allow illegally obtained evidence to be used in prosecutions of a serious nature, but the Supreme Court ruled that illegally obtained evidence could not be used against those only facing firearms charges. The charges were dropped against those thirteen. The jury for the remaining four found them guilty of the firearm charges but were unable to reach a verdict on the charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The decision on whether there will be a retrial will be announced in May.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Government decided they needed to give police the power to legally obtain evidence by video surveillance, so they passed the temporary Video Camera Surveillance Act in October 2011. But it attacked defendants’ rights.

It was retroactive, applying to actions before the law’s passage, meaning that video evidence gathered before the law came into effect was able to be used as evidence. Defendants that may have been found innocent under the ruling of the Supreme Court could now be found guilty by evidence that was, at the time, unlawfully gathered. Furthermore, some crimes may have been committed on the presumption that video evidence could not be used against the perpetrators. The Act constituted a form of entrapment and meant people had unknowingly incriminated themselves. Retroactivity is a slippery slope. How can an individual be confident that his lawful acts today will not be retrospectively made illegal tomorrow?

The Act was succeeded by the Search and Surveillance Act on April 18 this year. Many say this continues to violate the rights of citizens. The act gives the ability to conduct covert surveillance to over 70 government agencies, many of which do not have a complaints department through which they can be held accountable. It is puzzling why many of these departments need the power to conduct surveillance. Under the Act, colleagues, friends and family of a suspect can be put under surveillance even before the suspect is even charged.

It is Parliament’s responsibility to ensure the law gives the police the necessary powers to investigate legally and efficiently. They have now overextended these powers. It is also their responsibility to ensure citizens are protected from the abuse of these powers; they have not. People are concerned that Parliament is not acting in the best interests of its citizens, and even if it were, whether they can rely on the police to act within the bounds of the law. If Parliament believes that it is acting in citizens best interests then its perception of the right to privacy differs greatly from those who oppose the act.

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