Urewera terror raid case a 'house of cards'

The Urewera "terror raids" case has been labelled a "house of cards" following the Crown's decision to withdraw charges against 11 of the remaining 15 defendants.

Crown Solicitor Simon Moore said yesterday only four of the original group – Tame Iti, Emily Bailey, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara and Urs Signer – would face trial in February 2012.

They have been charged with participation in a criminal group and firearms charges.

The other 11 remaining defendants faced only firearms charges but Mr Moore said a recent appeal decision by the Supreme Court meant there was no longer enough evidence to continue against some and the others would have to be tried separately after the main trial.

That would not be "in the public interest" so all 11 would have their charges dropped.

Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge said if the prosecutions had collapsed following the revocation of a single line of evidence it indicated the case was "not overwhelming".

"If you pull out one card and the whole house comes down, it starts to look like, well, a house of cards."

Mr Hodge said if it took "dubious evidence" there was probably not a strong factual case.

"It must have been a combination of eavesdropping and circumstantial evidence. It suggests it wasn't a robust case with lots of Plan B evidence."

The group began as the Urewera 17 after nationwide arrests in 2007 following a year of police surveillance of Maori and environmental activists, much of it in camps in the Urewera ranges.

Police originally sought prosecution under terrorism suppression laws but that was rejected by the solicitor-general.

The case has laboured through the courts for four years facing numerous appeals over separation of defendants, location of the trial, whether it would be heard by a judge-alone or a jury, and admissibility of evidence.

One of the defendants, Tuhoe Lambert, has died while waiting for the trial.

The main group of accused had wanted, but was refused, a jury trial. They were appealing against the decision that their case would be heard by a judge sitting alone.

The reduced size of the trial for the remaining four accused means the Crown is now expected to agree to a jury deciding the charges.

The latest Supreme Court decision is suppressed but Mr Moore said it would mean the firearms charges would have to be tried after the case against Iti, Bailey, Kemara and Signer, which itself would have to be covered by wide-ranging suppression orders.

There is no statute of limitations on Crimes Act offences but the delay of four-and-a-half years since they were charged meant pursuing the prosecutions was "not in the public interest", Mr Moore said.

One of the defendants who has now been discharged, Wellington activist Valerie Morse, said the case was "a disaster from start to finish" and it was clear that police "don't have any evidence".

The remaining four were on "trumped up charges" that were "a desperate attempt by the Crown to salvage their reputation and justify this whole fiasco".

Ms Morse said that from reading 30,000 pages of police disclosure it was clear the police had "a very distorted picture of the aspirations of Maori for sovereignty". Tino rangatiratanga (self-rule) was presented "as if that was a criminal idea".

The Crown's decision was applauded by Global Peace and Justice Auckland (GPJA), which is led by veteran protester John Minto, and the National Distribution Union.

NDU general secretary Robert Reid said: "Common sense has finally prevailed.

"There was never anything in this case, and the Crown is lucky it has an excuse for getting out of the farce that the police created," he said.

GPJA said the Crown had tried to give "face-saving reasons" for dropping the charges "but they don't provide even a fig leaf to cover this most embarrassing of police blunders which amounted to a dedicated assault on civil liberties and the right to dissent".

Those who have had charges dropped since the original arrests now include: Ira Bailey, Marama Mayrick, Rawiri Iti, Omar Hamed, Raunatiri Hunt, Jamie Lockett, Watene McClutchie, Tekaumarua Wharepouri, Moana Winitana, Maraki Teepa, Phillip Purewa, Trudi Paraha and Valerie Morse.

Two of those had already been separated from the main trial but prosecutor Ross Burns said the effect would be the same for them.

The trial for the four remaining accused is set down for February 13, 2012 in the High Court at Auckland.

Prime Minister John Key said he could not comment as it was an operational matter and there were still four people facing charges. "I don't want to corrupt that process."

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said he could not comment for the same reasons. "It's certainly an interesting decision and we can only speculate why."

THE STORY SO FAR

2006: Police start monitoring alleged guerrilla-style training camps deep in the Urewera Range, including bugging conversations, tapping cellphone calls and texts, and video surveillance.

October 15, 2007: Three hundred police officers raid homes in several towns and cities. Seventeen arrests are made in Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton, Auckland and eastern Bay of Plenty. Police commissioner Howard Broad said the raids were carried out to minimise risk to lives and property. Prime Minister Helen Clark refuses to comment on reports of specific threats against her or any other politician.

Sixteen people arrested in the raids face charges under the Firearms Act. Twelve, including Tuhoe activist Tame Iti, are referred to the solicitor-general's office for possible prosecution under the Terrorism Suppression Act, passed in 2002.

November 2007: Solicitor-General David Collins brands the terrorism act incoherent and unworkable and says it cannot be applied to those arrested in the raids.

Chanting "Howard is a racist coward", hundreds of angry Tuhoe people march through Wellington performing haka outside Te Puni Kokiri, Parliament and police national headquarters.

April 2008: The solicitor-general confirms he is prosecuting The Dominion Post's owner and editor for publishing leaked conversations secretly recorded by police during their investigations. The charges are later dismissed by two High Court judges.

December 2010: Chief High Court Justice Helen Winkelmann decides the defendants will be tried by a judge alone rather than a jury. The trial, expected to last three months, is due to start in Auckland on May 31, 2011. The Court of Appeal later upholds the decision.

April 2011: A documentary on the raids premieres in Wellington as part of the World Cinema Showcase 2011. Operation 8: Deep in the Forest features footage of the raids and interviews several of the accused.

May 2011: The Supreme Court allows the group to argue for a trial by jury. The trial is delayed. It is due to start in August but is put off again until February 2012.

July 2011: One of the defendants, Tuhoe Lambert, 63, a Vietnam veteran, dies in Auckland Hospital. He had multiple health problems.

Yesterday: Firearms charges against 11 of the remaining 15 are dropped. Tame Iti, Emily Bailey, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara and Urs Signer are to face trial in February, accused of participation in a criminal group and firearms charges.

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