Over a thousand people marched today in New Zealand’s north island in protest at Monday’s anti-terror raids when 17 Maori and environmental activists were arrested. Protesters gathered outside Whakatane police station where speakers accused police of using heavy-handed tactics in the raids in a remote mountainous region. Marchers angry about reports that police stormed a school bus, carried placards reading: "We are not terrorists, we've been terrorised" and "Don't point a gun at me, I'm under five".
The protests occurred as a result of Monday’s action when 300 police, including heavily armed special tactical response officers, in balaclavas and full riot gear, locked down the Bay of Plenty settlements of Ruatoki and Taneatua. According to NZ police the action was aimed at shutting down weapons training camps in the North Island. Police commissioner Howard Broad said participants were training for "military-style activity." Police say they seized napalm bombs, Molotov cocktails and assault rifles in the raids. Several of the group are former Vietnam War veterans.
Joint leader of the Maori Party Pita Sharples said the police action was a sad throwback to the darkest days in the country when colonial troopers stormed into Maori villages. Speaking at a conference in Queensland on Wednesday, he condemned the raids saying they set back race relations between Maori and Pakeha (White New Zealanders) by 100 years. "I can hardly believe that negative history is repeating itself,” he said. “This action has violated the trust that has been developing between Maori and Pakeha.”
According to the New Zealand Herald newspaper, the area was host to a 4,000 strong Maori-run paramilitary group called the Freedom Fighters which recruited for the camps. They interviewed a member named "Dave" who said the group ran monthly fitness camps, not guerrilla-style weapons training. "We are a very well-organised and well-disciplined organisation with up to 4000 foot soldiers,” he said. “We are focusing on racism, mental health and corruption in our Government."
Among those arrested was 55 year old Maori activist Tame Iti. Iti is a prominent Maori nationalist who was acquitted earlier this year on appeal of firing a gun at the New Zealand flag during national day celebrations in 2005. In the 1970s, he was a member of the NZ Communist Party and spent time with the Black Panthers in the US. Iti was remanded in custody in Rotorua on Wednesday and now charged with 11 firearms offences. His son Toi defended Iti’s actions. "My father is not a terrorist and the majority of the New Zealand public believe that,” he said.
The raids were the first to be carried out in five years since New Zealand passed its 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. Despite the controversy, NZ lawmakers are pressing ahead with modifications to make the law even stronger. Opponents are worried by the changes include a new offence of committing a terrorist act which carries a term of life imprisonment.
Officially, the bill seeks to correct inconsistencies of the original act with New Zealand's UN obligations and the UN Security Council resolutions on terrorism. However the Maori Party's Pita Sharples is not convinced. Maori make up 15 percent of New Zealand's 4 million people but account for almost half of the nation's prison population. The Maori unemployment rate is also more than double the national average. "When it suits this country, it invokes the rulings of the United Nations,” said Sharples. “But when it comes to supporting the rights of indigenous people as passed by the UN, then it turns its butt."