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Raids have left a bitter taste for Maori

A sweep by armed police in placid New Zealand on suspicion of terrorist plans has set off charges of racism.

December 30, 2007|Ray Lilley | Associated Press

RUATOKI, NEW ZEALAND — Armed police stormed into this quiet village at dawn, threw up roadblocks, shot out truck tires and forced families out of their homes at gunpoint.

The rare show of force, with its dark subscript of terrorism and assassination plans, stunned this placid nation where beat cops don't even carry guns. It has since sparked charges of racism and inflamed historical resentments.

The October raid was part of a nationwide sweep in which 16 people were arrested and authorities said they shut down military-style camps on Maori ancestral lands where both Maori militants and environmental activists trained.

But a bid to charge 12 of the 16 with terrorist activities unraveled on technical grounds, triggering complaints of police heavy-handedness. Although the facts remain unclear, the way police handled the case has strained relations with the 540,000-strong Maori community, which makes up 15% of the country's population.

What many found most appalling were the tactics used to arrest three of the suspects in Ruatoki and the nearby town of Whakatane, both home to the uncompromising Tuhoe -- the only Maori tribe that still rejects the government's sovereignty 167 years after the British colonized the islands. For some, the raids stirred memories of the repression of the Maori more than a century ago.

"They came in here like in a B-grade film," said Tame Iti, a well-known Tuhoe activist arrested in the Ruatoki raid. "It was an attack on the community."

Ruatoki -- small houses, some just sheds -- lies in flat fields by a rural highway on the northern of New Zealand's two main islands.

Iti said police stormed in and held his family at gunpoint, including the children, and fired two shots into his truck's tires to immobilize it.

After the arrests, protests broke out in a dozen towns and cities and abroad in the United States, Britain and Australia, itself home to 250,000 Maori.

The police actions against the Tuhoe "set back relations between Maori and the government 100 years," said Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party and a member of parliament.

Authorities said that during 18 months of covert monitoring, they had heard armed activists at the camps -- in the forested hills of Te Urewera, the Tuhoe ancestral lands -- talking of political assassinations and bombing power plants. The arrested included some white New Zealanders.

In a controversial move, local newspapers published police intercepts of those conversations. In them, the suspects discuss using "sudden" and "brutal" attacks to divide "Aotearoa," the Maori name for New Zealand. The suspects also surmise that foreign terrorist groups would get the blame, according to the newspaper accounts.

Iti said the camps he was involved in taught bush survival skills and firearms safety, something he has been doing for Tuhoe and other youth for 30 years. He rejected any connection to terrorism.

Iti was charged last year with reckless use of a shotgun and desecrating the New Zealand flag at a Maori ceremony on Tuhoe lands. The charges were dropped after he pointed out that it was an Australian flag and that he had fired into the ground.

The Tuhoe said four weapons were seized in the raids, but Detective Inspector Bruce Good told the Associated Press that there were 20, including AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, rifles and pistols, plus silencers, scopes, ammunition and firearms parts.

The government planned to charge 12 suspects under the Terrorism Suppression Act, enacted after the 9/11 attacks. But Solicitor General David Collins, the country's top justice official, ruled that the law was incoherent and too complex to apply in this case.

Those arrested, now free on bail, face lesser charges of illegal possession and use of firearms.

The Maori are descendants of Polynesians who migrated to New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.

The Tuhoe, the most isolated and poorest of the Maori tribes, are proud that their ancestors refused to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which created New Zealand under British sovereignty.

The treaty guaranteed the Maori could keep their lands, forests, fisheries and culture -- commitments Maori say were broken as European settlers flooded in.

In 1867, colonial troops invaded Tuhoe territory and confiscated much of the tribe's land. Twenty years of guerrilla fighting ensued.

The Tuhoe resistance has won wide respect from other Maori, who remain proud of their fierce warrior heritage. Other Maori have been "colonized" by European culture, the Tuhoe say.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said police and the government would need to start building bridges over the divide. They face an uphill battle, particularly with the Tuhoe.

Sharples, the Maori Party co-leader, said invoking the Terrorism Suppression Act had branded all Maori as possible terrorists with international links.

It "could create repercussions on people's attitudes to authority and the police in the future," he said. "It's created further mistrust by Maori of the authorities."

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