It’s a strange old thing, life. You’re born, weird shit happens, you get carted off in a box and sprinkled on a rose bush. What makes all that in between stuff weirder still is the six o’clock news. Nothing unnerves me so much as Jude Bailey’s uncanny ability to deliver stories ranging from oil-barons-laying-waste-to-Alaska to kittens-up-trees without so much as blinking. It’s like before every session she throws back a handful of Prozac, to be assured of an evening free of emotional ups and downs. It would be a monstrous paycheck that could prevent me from raising an eyebrow after anchoring a piece on Sharon’s assassination of a Hamas spiritual leader. Not that much in the way of “news” is occurring at the time of writing. A boy with a bomb doesn’t detonate it. It’s three days since Sheik Ahmed Yassin was killed. Minister Ruth Dyson mutters irresponsible tart in a meeting. One could be forgiven for thinking that not a lot is happening in Aotearoa just now. But it would be a horrible mistake to think that the mainstream media represents the mood of New Zealand.
On the 24th of March, Archives New Zealand hosted a discussion with Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyers and an ex-CIA officer, Dr Buchanan. The high number of attendees at the session demonstrated that interest in the ongoing Zaoui investigation is still extremely high. And yet the plight of Zaoui, who enters his 15th month of jail, housed with drug addicts and criminals (a considerable step up from 10 months of solitary confinement), hasn’t received much coverage in any of the mainstream media since January.
To judge by the lull in the media at the moment, all’s quiet on the western front. Who knows, by the time this magazine goes to print, someone will have killed someone else in the name of war, peace or P. Just now though, after watching TV One try to make an issue out of someone calling someone else a ‘tart’, I can’t help but think fondly of those heady days of summer when one could switch on the box at the dot of six and be assured of live images of Wairarapa’s soggy wallpaper and wet cows. Alas, those enraptured evenings are long gone.
And yet, last night I went to a discussion led by a former CIA intelligence officer and Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyers, where it became clear that a whole heap of shit is going down in NZ. But it’s not news. News has to meet strict criteria of being televisable and high impact. Zaoui happened pre-Christmas. What happened today was that he continued to languish in jail. Perhaps not scintillating viewing (tonight we have live footage of an innocent man being served his 500th bowl of mushy peas and stew), yet around him there is acurring a storm of information and misinformation, and if it is possible for there to be a storm of lack of information, there is one of those too.
Dr Paul Buchanan, who discussed the “culture of fear” that has permeated the western world since the 9/11 attacks, introduced the address. This culture’s migration to New Zealand is also Not-News, being neither televisable nor of-the-moment, and yet its presence is clearly being felt, and fostered, in the highest offices of our civil service. The ‘culture of fear’ is being allowed to influence people whose job is to act independently of this sort of pressure, people who are paid mega bucks to promote a politically unbiased point of view.
So the questions that I left the lecture with were not so much about Zaoui himself, but what his case, and the handling of it, signifies for New Zealand. Because, it should now be clear to everyone, this is not a case about an individual. Along with Zaoui, New Zealand is on trial. How our civil process are allowed to operate; how human rights will be manifest in this country; how we are perceived by the rest of the world. Will New Zealand’s word count for much on any human rights issue if we allow international pressure to influence our internal affairs? Can we trust that our own rights will be recognised by our own Ministries, should the case against Zaoui be upheld?
What sort of place is New Zealand? What sort of place do we want it to be?
The story is this: In a safe, somewhere in the SIS building, are documents that nobody without top-level security clearance will ever be able to see. They are the reason that Ahmed Zaoui is being held in prison with a security risk certificate, even though the Refugee Status Appeal Authority (RSAA) has declared that he is a genuine refugee. The RSAA has conducted rigorous, in-depth research on the history of Zaoui and acted on its conclusion by declaring him a lawful refugee. Its conclusions were that Zaoui is a victim of a massive, politically motivated disinformation campaign.
On the other side of the argument are the Department of Immigration and the SIS, who have submitted a summary of their (secret) case details against Zaoui. Their assessment has these 7 points to make:
* That Zaoui is considered to be a senior member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
* That the Website larouchpub.com says that this is a violent group.
* That Zaoui has not been held directly responsible for any terrorist acts.
* That Zaoui is not a physical risk to personal involved in his incarceration.
* That he may attempt to contact other members of the GIA.
* That there is a risk of him instigating relationships in New Zealand to assist him in gaining legal residential status in New Zealand.
* That he will try to gain support through the media.
As a result of this argument, Zaoui was held in solitary confinement for a staggering 10 months and, 14 months after his initial detention, continues to be detained in jail.
What I find incredible almost beyond belief is that a senior civil servant can submit a report that is based entirely on child-like research and a complete disregard for our own laws. The problem in addressing his argument is where to start. Zaoui’s lawyers have written tens of thousands of words refuting the summery, available from Amnesty.org.nz, but I’m going to do it with a few less.
First, Zaoui is not (as recognised by the RSAA) a member of the GIA (A militant activist organisation). He is a highly ranked member of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a non-militant group operating legally around the world, including Australia. The promotion of the disinformation regarding Zaoui’s membership of the GIA is sponsored by the Algerian/French diplomatic relationship, and continued in Belgium and Switzerland, where he was tried and convicted of being a threat to national security.
In fact, Zaoui’s lawyers are calling ex-members of the Algerian secret service to testify that Zaoui is and was not a member of the GIA, but a victim of political persecution. That is, if they are allowed to. The Minister of Immigration has suggested that foreign witnesses for Zaoui will not be given entry visas to New Zealand.
Our own Intelligence Service has referenced their opinion to a web site that also states that Queen Elizabeth is a drug baron. Check it out. ‘larouchepub.com’.
The last two points made by the SIS are especially interesting. This is because they are activities that are not illegal. “Using the media” is what I am doing right now. Yet, lo… my civil freedoms remain. Not so for Zaoui, who did not use the media but “may do so”. Neither is “instigating relationships” in New Zealand illegal. It will be a sad Friday night when it is.
New Zealand is faced with a decision of national importance. This case will not be resolved for many months, and possibly years, and during that time, Zaoui’s confinement will continue. While he rots in jail, and his family in Malaysia awaits the release of their father and husband, the rest of us are fed feel-good stories about potential Olympians and a Kiwi getting it on with the Queen’s cousin. The decision that we all have to make is what type of country we want our home to be. The options as defined by the SIS and Department of Internal Affairs are: a paranoid state that bows to the political agendas of foreign heavyweights; or, a country in which individuals are free to live and act in accordance with the UN charter of human rights. Perhaps, instead of dedicating a half-hour of your existence to mainstream news coverage this evening, you could write a letter in support of your own ideal to your local editor. Perhaps then the headlines will not read, “Fluffy Kitten Looks Cute”, but, instead, “New Zealand Chooses Truth”.