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 repression of 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. It was an attack on me as a freedom fighter, and as a sovereign person of this country." The town of Ruatoki is dotted with small houses, some just sheds, that lie 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 including children at gunpoint, firing two shots into tires on his truck to immobilize it. After the arrests, protests broke out in a dozen towns and cities and abroad in the United States, England 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 terror groups would be blamed, 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 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 following the 9/11 attacks. But Solicitor General David Collins, the country’s top justice official, ruled the anti-terror law was too complex to apply in this case. The 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.
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 its 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 will 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 has branded all Maori as possible terrorists with international links. It "could create repercussions on peoples’ attitudes to authority and the police in the future," he said. "It’s created further mistrust by Maori of the authorities."