Sutch spy allegations rocked New Zealand

The defence: Lawyer Mike Bungay, left, was able to get William Ball Sutch acquitted, but the case destroyed his client.
STUFF/KEVIN STENT

The defence: Lawyer Mike Bungay, left, was able to get William Ball Sutch acquitted, but the case destroyed his client.

He was the paragon of a public servant – respected, influential and well-known. But William Ball Sutch may also have been a Soviet agent.

Some argue there is no "may have been" about it.

The story of his arrest and trial on accusations of passing information to the Russian embassy is one of New Zealand's most infamous spy yarns. It was also a truly shocking moment in Wellington history.

Fleeing spy? Dimitri Razgovorov runs from Aro St after the police pounce on his meeting with high-profile economist Bill ...
FAIRFAX NZ

Fleeing spy? Dimitri Razgovorov runs from Aro St after the police pounce on his meeting with high-profile economist Bill Sutch on September 26, 1974.

On the rainy night of September 26, 1974, Sutch – chairman of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and former senior economics adviser to the Savage and Fraser Labour governments – was arrested near a public toilet in Holloway Rd, Aro Valley.

The SIS and police had been hiding in the toilet and close by, ready to pounce on a meeting they expected him to have with Soviet diplomat Dimitri Razgovorov.

The intelligence service had long suspected Sutch of Communist sympathies. Its agents followed Razgovorov to Aro Valley that night after seeing them meet twice before.

Dignified silence: William Ball Sutch said very little at his trial, and remained stony-faced and quiet throughout.
Fairfax NZ

Dignified silence: William Ball Sutch said very little at his trial, and remained stony-faced and quiet throughout.

Their plan was to nab Sutch during the handover, then force him to reveal everything he knew about KGB activity in New Zealand in return for not being prosecuted.

It didn't work out like that. They missed the handover, if there was one, and Razgovorov and Sutch had split up by the time the economist was arrested by police about 8.40pm.

Razgovorov was able to plead diplomatic immunity, but Sutch was not.

He absolutely denied having met Soviet agents. Pushed, he admitted he might have met Razgovorov socially, but only socially. The idea he passed on secrets was preposterous.

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He appeared in court the next day and The Evening Post headlined its edition: "Dr Sutch facing charges under NZ Secrets Act."

Its reporting was prosaic, but the news went down as a bombshell.

Sutch's explanation for the meetings – that they were chats about things like Zionism and what New Zealand Chinese thought about China – were widely doubted.

Wellington was rife with speculation and theories. Mention Sutch today and anyone who remembers him will have an opinion.

The trial was a sensational affair, which began on February 17, 1975. For many people it was the first time the work of the SIS had been revealed.

The Evening Post covered it extensively. Sutch faced charges that, between April and September 1974, for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interest of the state, he obtained information calculated to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.

The Crown essentially laid out SIS evidence of meetings with Razgovorov and asked why it was all so clandestine if it was innocent.

The defence tried to paint him as a decent New Zealander, calling character witnesses including the ambassador to Italy.

Sutch's lawyer, Mike Bungay, suggested there was no way of knowing what information he was passing, and therefore how could anyone say it was prejudicial to the state?

After his arrest, Sutch had been flustered and embarrassed, and that explained why he denied the meeting, Bungay said. "The accused may well have been stupid, but stupidity itself is not a crime."

Throughout, Sutch presented a dignified figure. Five days in, the jury retired to consider its verdict.

A tense wait of seven hours began, as the Post's best writer, Gabriel David, recorded. Bungay smoked at least four packs of cigarettes and the prosecutor, Savage, helped himself to a cigar.

Sutch seemed imperturbable. When Bungay told him something the jury had asked was a bad sign, he did not react. All he said was that he hoped it was over quickly so he could go home.

Eventually, at 9.50pm, the jury came back. They had bought Bungay's argument. Not guilty.

"His daughter shed tears of happy relief, his wife just wanted to kiss him ... his lawyer beamed, but Dr WB Sutch, the only man to be tried and acquitted under the Official Secrets Act, remained entirely inscrutable, moved only to comment that he could now weed his garden," David wrote.

Sutch, his reputation in tatters and under great strain, died a few months later.

Since the end of the Cold War, the case has come up a few times as documents have been declassified. Last year, The Dominion Post was able to access the Mitrokhin Archive, a cache of KGB documents brought to Britain by a defector.

Among the papers was a file on "Maori", an agent recruited in 1950 whose life details matched Sutch's.

His family and other supporters continue to reject the idea he was a spy, and pay tribute to his sizeable contribution to New Zealand's development throughout his career.

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 - The Dominion Post

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