OPINION: It is too much to hope that the sentencing of the "Urewera Four" will end a divisive affair that has dragged on for too long, but it should.
By using firearms at military-style training camps in the Ureweras, Tame Iti, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Urs Signer and Emily Bailey broke the law. They did so repeatedly and in a manner that damaged relations between the Crown and the Tuhoe people. The Independent Police Conduct Authority has yet to rule on the police conduct of the raids that terrified the residents of the eastern Bay of Plenty township of Ruatoki but, whatever it finds, the ultimate responsibility for the raids rests with the four convicted of firearms offences. If they, and others, had not been playing at soldiers in the bush and taking part in alarming discussions, the raids would not have occurred.
The facts, as set out during sentencing by Justice Rodney Hansen, are these: in January, September and October 2007 Iti organised, and the others participated in, a series of camps, or rama, near Ruatoki. During the camps semi-automatic weapons, sawn-off shotguns, and sporting rifles were fired. In addition, Molotov cocktails were made and thrown at one of the camps. When police terminated their surveillance operation, three rifles, two of them semi-automatic, were found under a tarpaulin at Iti's Ruatoki house, four rifles and a semi-automatic shotgun were found in the boot of Kemara's car and in a caravan he occupied, and a .22 rifle was found in a backpack at a Wellington campsite occupied by Signer and Bailey.
The explanations proffered by defence counsel for the camps and the use of firearms that participants were being taught bushcraft and survival skills or that they were being trained for employment in the security industry were dismissed by the judge as "utterly implausible".
The evidence pointed, he said, to the establishment of a private militia. That those running the camps did not know what they were doing and posed a greater danger to themselves than the general public is beside the point. So, too, is the fact that the judge concluded they were motivated by a sense of altruism rather than criminality. They wanted to redress Tuhoe grievances.
A crime committed in pursuit of laudable objectives is just as much a crime as a crime committed for base motives. Those who have rushed to defend Iti and his fellows should ask themselves how they would react if a group of white supremacists was found to be covertly preparing for guerilla warfare.
The judge sentenced Iti and Kemara to two-and-a-half-years' imprisonment. He indicated he was prepared to consider a sentence of nine months' home detention for Signer and Bailey provided a suitable address could be found. They had played a lesser role in the offending.
The sentences are just. They serve as a warning not just to Iti and his fellows, but to others of all political persuasions that political activity must fall within the bounds of the law.
The rule of law depends upon all being equal before the law.
- The Dominion Post