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Friday, January 07, 2011

Hush hush: no jury for terror raids

Urewera raids: Lone judge to decide cases

Most of the 18 people charged after the Urewera "terror" raids have been denied a jury trial.

Fifteen of the group, who are facing firearms charges stemming from police raids in 2007, will be tried before a judge alone when their case goes ahead in August.

Suppression has been lifted on the decision, after the Crown argued that it was in the public interest to know the sort of trial the 18 defendants would go through.

Human rights activists have decried the ruling, saying the high-profile, controversial case should be decided by a jury of peers.

The decision to not use a jury was made on December 9, but was suppressed by Justice Helen Winkelmann.

It seems remarkable that one of the most high profile criminal cases in recent years will be decided solely by a judge, after judge Helen Winkelman made the decision to remove the jury from the trial of the Urewera 18. Given that the case is of significant public interest and the jail terms that they are facing are longer than three months, it seems the Crown in this instance is aborting notions of justice enshrined in our law in favour of an outcome that justifies the raids in the first place.

While the news was leaked about a month ago by kiwifirst publisher Vince Siemer, who is now facing threats of prosecution, the lifting of the suppression order today on the decision to remove the jury on a case fraught with inconsistencies and questions raises serious questions about the ability of the Crown to offer a fair trial in this instance.

Given that the whole case has been surrounded by controversy sparked by the initial decision to prosecute under terrorism legislation, the suppression of details now is clearly an attempt to sweep justice under the rug. The phone tapping records from the police were leaked online, and while there was much talk in these records the 150 page document functioned as a selection of loaded quotes that didn't demonstrate any organized planning for proposed terror attacks. The case also seemed to be confused with sovereignty issues, given Tuhoe's negotiations with the Crown at that point and the setting up of the police blockade on the land confiscation line to photograph members of the community. While I don't know the finer details of the case, I do believe that some of the skepticism surrounding the case was justified. Tuhoe's territory on the East Coast is a place where many people do not see themselves as having ceded governance to the Crown - many people do not register their firearms. As the raids were executed in multiple locations around the country it also came out that the police had taken underwear as evidence, for what reason, nobody knows. Then we had Tame Iti, accused of terrorism, yet deemed safe enough for society to fly to the United Kingdom to perform in a version of the Merchant of Venice.

While the terrorism charges were dropped in October 2007 after being critiqued widely by the public (it seemed that even those who felt they should face criminal charges found the idea of terrorists in one of New Zealand's most remote areas, the Ureweras, incredulous), the outcome of this case should be decided by jury. We should be very cautious of judge Winkelman's argument that the case is too complex for a jury and that she alone should decide. Whatever you think of the case, a huge amount of public money has been spent on the raids and pursuing four years of court time in prosecuting these individuals. This means that there is pressure on the Crown and the police to justify the decision for the 'terror raids' by getting a guilty verdict. Due to the way that the case is perceived by many Maori to be one that is centered around issues of sovereignty rather than the criminal charges the individuals face, the case also potentially has a significant impact on race relations in New Zealand. Removing the jury seriously calls into question the legitimacy of our justice system.


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