Waihopai Verdict – A Victory for Peacemaking

Jim Consedine

I would like to call out to the consciences of those who form part of armed groups of any kind. To each and every one, I say: stop, reflect and abandon the path of violence!

Pope Benedict XVI, 1 Jan 2010

It was a moment to savour. Two hours after retiring, the jury in the trial of the three Catholic Workers – Fr Peter Murnane OP, Adi Leason, Sam Land – who deflated a dome at the Waihopai spy base near Blenheim in April 2008, returned to a packed courtroom with their verdicts. It took less than a minute to read them. Not guilty on all counts.

The applause was spontaneous and immediate. Sustained for several minutes, it was renewed as the jury were dismissed and left the courtroom. They had played a critical part in this historic decision to acquit. In the history of New Zealand law, there has never been a decision made that in certain circumstances a higher moral law existed and should prevail over the enscribed legislation of a nation. These circumstances had been accepted by the jury as prevailing when the three peacemakers acted and damaged the equipment and temporarily put the antennae out of actions.

The defence had wanted to argue that the damage done to property was small compared to ‘the greater good’ achieved by their action which could save lives. This ‘necessity defence’ was ruled out by the judge because the defence could not show specific individuals who were damaged by the information from Waihopai. What was allowed was a defence from the Crimes Act of ‘claim of right’ because the trio believed sincerely they had the right to act as they did. The judge held they did not have that right but agreed that there was evidence that they truly believed they did. Hence the moral argument that followed and the need to show the state of mind of each defendant at the time of the action. The result was lengthy personal testimony from each defendant.

It is a verdict that the Crown will not appeal.

Outside the courtroom on the third floor of the building, the large number of supporters of the three men linked hands in prayer and sang, thanking God for the verdict and acknowledging God’s presence and active help. Give peace a chance and kumbaya, anthems of the peace movement worldwide, rang out around the building, followed by prayer. Then it was off downstairs to the waiting media scrum. Peter later distinguished himself by making a guest appearance on the TV7 live show, Backbencher, screening from a packed bar opposite parliament full of boozy patrons celebrating St Patrick’s Day.

Party Time

And then it was party time out at Te Puawai o te Aroha, the Catholic Worker farm at Otaki, home to Adi and Shelly Leason and their seven children. Corks were popped, music played, jokes and stories told as more than 60 people packed into the farm house and gave vent to their pent up feelings of joy and celebration. Speeches were made, acknowledging those who had made it all happen and put the infrastructure in place around the trial. A special moment came when Adi stood to thank Shelley for her love and support (words he had earlier spoken on national TV to a million viewers!) and he danced her around the kitchen as they sang a love duet. It was a lovely moment, treasured by all present.

Speeches were also made to thank those who had travelled great distances, including the strong contingent from the Hokianga led by Aunty Raina Paniora, their kuia, and including about a dozen children still at nappy and slightly beyond stage. Their presence in court had had a humanising effect on all, including the jury and other court officials.

A special acknowledgment was made to the Australians who had made it over the ditch to support the trial. Jim and Joseph Dowling, their friend Cully Palmer from Queensland, Bryan Law, who blogged on Scoop each day, and Ciaron O’Reilly, whose evidence about other Ploughshares acquittals in Dublin, England and Scotland had been important on the penultimate day of the trial.

As midnight approached, many made their way back into Wellington while the farmhouse continued to rock into the wee small hours, concluding what had been a truly memorable day.

The Trial

Indeed it had been a memorable fortnight. To have up to 100 peacemakers gather, most of them actively Christian, to witness to a trial involving a confrontation between the non-violent power of Christ and the violence and power of the state lock-stepping in tune with the war plans of the US military and its allies, is a pretty special thing to do.

Two days prior to the trial, a shrine featuring icons of saints like Mohandas Gandhi, St Francis, Oscar Romero, Phillip Berrigan, Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bohoffer and others was established in Katherine Mansfield Park opposite the US Embassy. It remained for 10 days. Candles were lit and regular prayer was held morning and evening there, concluding with a Taize vigil each evening at dusk. People prayed for the victims of war and the success of the trial

One feature made a defining difference to this trial. The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable. A spirit of family, peaceful co-operation, sharing, feeding of hungry mouths at appointed times, prayer at frequent intervals, the creation of community. Everyone noticed it – and many remarked upon it. .

This presence was reflected in the huge help the Marist priests gave in providing marae-style accommodation to about 40 travellers at Emmaus House near the US Embassy. Many social justice folk from Wellington dropped by to offer support. The wonderful Urban Vision young people of Wellington were everywhere supporting the trial and proving help to the community of the willing. These evangelical Christians certainly have some energy and great generosity of spirit and imagination. Catholic Workers and their friends and families came to support three of their number on trial. Collectively they all formed a community of the willing, peacemaking People of God, witnessing in the central city, a stone’s throw from parliament, the centre of state power.

This court verdict was backed by prayer from religious communities, parishes and individuals across the country. In the courtroom, Catholic Worker kuia Aunty Raina Paniora faithfully prayed her rosary as a spirit of community, peaceful co-operation, sharing, song, humour, prayer and family was formed around the trial. The jury had to be affected by the power of the Spirit present.

The Evidence

Those present in court heard how Waihopai is part of the five nation network of global surveillance called the Echelon system, which is implicated in the mass murder of civilians in several countries. Waihopai helps provide intelligence to the warmongers. There was evidence available to link the Echelon network and Waihopai with the deaths through aerial bombardment of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, including countless children. All are innocents caught up in a war not of their own making.

Waihopai, while nominally a NZ agency, is part of the US military machine run from the Pentagon. Communication with our government is limited to a 30 minute meeting each year which does little more than rubber stamp the budget. In his time as PM, David Lange had little knowledge of its activities, even though he was supposed to be in charge of it.

In particular an affidavit from Katherine Gun who worked for British security was telling. Early in 2003, she leaked a memo showing how the network of spy bases including Waihopai was being used to build pressure for a war on Iraq. The leaked memo was from Frank Koza, head of regional targets at the US National Security Agency. It requested surveillance on the diplomatic communications of key UN Security Council members who were undecided regarding their support for a UN resolution favouring the US invasion of Iraq. The New Zealand Government were opposing the invasion. Thus Waihopai was being used to undermine the NZ position. In addition, Koza wanted information on the domestic communications of non-UN Security Council members with particular reference to their negotiating positions on various international treaties.

There were some lovely lighter moments during the trial. In the predawn darkness on the morning of the action, Adi, the subsistence farmer, waited for a crucial cell phone call as to where to go next. When it didn’t come, in frustration he rang to be told by Peter, ‘I sent you a text an hour ago’. Adi asked, ‘what’s a text?’ On another occasion when the Crown prosecutor objected to Peter speaking about Isaiah, the judge reminded him that Isaiah was not on trial, then added, ‘but maybe he should be!’ Peter also clarified with the court that he was a ‘friar’ not a ‘fryer’ as in fish and chips.

The Media

The mainstream media, largely absent from the trial except for the opening and closing sessions, reacted with surprise to the verdicts. This is not surprising as the daily diet of corporate media reports promotes war and western business interests. They rarely hear or publish an alternative voice. This propaganda is all pervasive. The jury in this instance heard a different story and found it so convincing that they acquitted. Had the mainstream media been present for the duration of the trial (only on-line Scoop, and two documentary makers covered the trial fully) they would have more than likely voted to acquit as well.

The evidence was compelling. The Waihopai base is an integral part of intelligence gathering for the US war machine and responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in foreign wars. Trying to stop the killings by damaging property was a right and just moral choice, consistent with Catholic moral teachings.

The corporate media therefore missed the opportunity to ask key players the hard questions which flowed from this trial. They generally dealt with it at an emotional and superficial level. This included their unchallenged acceptance that damage done amounted to S$1.2 million, a figure regarded by the defendants as ludicrous. Virtually no effort was made to understand why three mature and deeply caring men would place their freedom on the line to try and expose the sinister work this base does. There has been little further scrutiny as to the role of the base, and virtually no follow up to frightening evidence presented to the court. The media seem to not want to know.

Speaking Truth to Power

One of the most impressive things about the evidence given at the Waihopai Ploughshares trial was the way each of the three defendants was able to give an integrated in depth presentation of deep biblical insight along with the Church’s teachings on justice issues related to their case. They were able, in a very articulate way, to present teachings from the two major streams the Church teaches from on major issues – Scripture and Tradition.

This wasn’t the usual flimsy sentimental stuff of the tabloids who know little of the Church teachings on social justice. Biblical teachings from both Testaments of the Hebrew scriptures were presented in the context in which they were written all those centuries ago. Powerful words were spoken in this public arena as to the dream of God contained in the vision of Isaiah for the human family to live together justly and nonviolently and not go to war and not waste precious resources on warmongering. The Beatitudes of Mathew and Luke form the basis of each of the defendants’ kaupapa for living justly in our time and were presented as such. Hence they were able to speak of the voluntary poverty, simplicity of lifestyle and the struggle for justice which emanates from these biblical injunctions.

There was also evidence of the poverty, malnutrition, disease and needless death perpetrated by the ongoing business of war in which New Zealand plays a tiny but vital part. There was evidence of the sinful waste of resources in a world where 30 000 children die each day from hunger – partially perpetuated by the billions of dollars spent on armaments each year. There was evidence of the damage done for tens of thousands of years into the future by the use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq and the deformities it has produced in the bodies of a current generation of thousands of children born since 1990.

They were able to show how the Echelon network of spy bases around the world, of which Waihopai is one, form an integral part of the war on the poor through providing ‘intelligence’ to the military. This can lead to further war action through bombings, shootings, and the destruction of homes, livestock and crops. They testified how these wars and the infrastructure which supports them including Waihopai use resources which, in moral terms, ‘are stolen from the poor who have nothing.’ (St Basil, 4th century) They were able to state clearly and in context the official teachings of the Church on these issues and enflesh those teachings in relation to real victims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Suddenly these weren’t just the theories of remote papal statements and bishops’ letters but real live situations with origins right in our own backyard. That realization is what gave their testimony such power. That is the testimony which won over the jury to their unanimous verdict. That was the testimony that the corporate media, government officials, Church leaders, talkback hosts, editorial writers and politicians were not on hand to hear.

No wonder there was a mixed and often uninformed reaction to the verdicts.

The acquittal is a significant victory for peacemakers and the power of non-violent direct action. Such action is taken usually only when all other avenues have failed. It indicates a radical love of neighbour, as Jesus commanded. In this case defenceless neighbours devastated by war and violence not of their making.

The jury recognised this. They acted accordingly.

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