Ahmed Zaoui is still classified as a security risk

NZ’s lone terror suspect splits country

Ahmed Zaoui is still classified as a security risk

BBC, 25 october 2006

The case of the only terror suspect to be arrested in New Zealand has forced the country to finally confront some of the large security issues that other Western governments have already been facing.

The story of Algerian Islamist Ahmed Zaoui has divided New Zealand.

He arrived in 2002 from Vietnam, and immediately sought political asylum. Since then he has had a two-year spell in jail, a year of it in solitary confinement.

Now out of prison in Auckland, his fate is still unclear, with New Zealand’s secret services insisting that they have classified information on him which requires his freedom to be restricted – leaving people wondering just who he is and what he might be hiding.

« When I first took the case on, I thought it would be a six-month case, » his lawyer Deborah Manning told BBC World Service’s Assignment programme.

« Now we’re three and a half years into it, with possibly another year to go. It’s unimaginable. It’s really like Mr Zaoui and his family are in some kind of legal nightmare – and that’s not an exaggeration. »

Terrorism conviction

Zaoui is the son of a Sunni Muslim Imam. He was a professor of theology at the University of Algiers until 1991, when he stood successfully for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of Algeria’s national elections.

Two years later, Zaoui fled to Europe, while in his absence the Algerian government convicted him of « establishing a terrorist organisation. »

But Zaoui insists he is a democrat, and that he was falsely accused of siding with the extremists.

« It is the regime that has been dictatorial, who oppressed the people, who caused a coup, » he said.

He added that he has different views on politics to other Algerian exiles, who wanted to bring change through violence.

« We reject violence. I am for a political solution for Algeria, to bring democracy and peace, » he said.

In 1994 he was convicted by a Belgian court of passport fraud, and given a suspended sentence. After that he travelled to Switzerland, Burkina Faso and Malaysia, from where he fled after Algerian police visited in 2002.

Meanwhile, France convicted him in absentia of « participation in a criminal group with a view to preparing terrorist acts ».

Public pressure

Zaoui then arrived in New Zealand in December 2002 – and, following his application for refugee status, New Zealand’s intelligence chief declared him a security risk.

Citing « secret material », the secret service placed him in jail – the first time this has happened in New Zealand.

« This is a case about whether the security services can deport a refugee based on secret information, » said his lawyer.

« This is absolutely a case about justice and the rule of law. »

New Zealand Prime Minster Helen Clark has attempted to stay aloof from the debate around Zaoui.

In 2004 she said she had not read any decisions by the refugee appeal committee because « there are only so many hours in the day ».

New Zealand’s intelligence chief does not speak to the media. However, Murray McCully of the opposition National Party has defended the steps taken against Zaoui.

« It’s in the nature of terrorist threats that some reasonably firm measures need to be taken by authorities, » he said.

« They’re going to have unfortunate consequences in terms of the civil liberties of a few. »

He also stressed that he firmly believes there is an Islamist threat to New Zealand security.

« Even if you took the view that we’re not a particular target, we have a big and active border with Australia – which has already been demonstrated to be an area of some interest for terrorism, » he said.

A lengthy refugee tribunal investigation has since dismissed convictions in France and Belgium and cleared him of all suspicion, and the New Zealand courts have ruled in favour of Zaoui, putting them into direct conflict with the secret services.

Blaming bin Laden

Zaoui has now been granted refugee status – but this has not made him a free man.

Public pressure forced the authorities to release him in 2004, but with night-time restrictions and twice-weekly reports.

Osama bin Laden
Zaoui says he is a scapegoat for the actions of Osama bin Laden
Some politicians have warned that the case raises key issues around immigration.

« In all the world, and in a far-flung part of the South Pacific, we’re the only sanctuary for someone who’s genuine? Excuse me, » said Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First party and the foreign minister in the governing coalition.

« We’re the softest touch in the world – that’s why he’s here. »

Meanwhile, Zaoui is still separated from his wife and children, who remain in South East Asia.

« My best hope is to be a normal man, and enjoy my freedom, to be with my family, » he said.

« Unfortunately, I have no options. I blame [Osama] bin Laden for my predicament, but New Zealand has made me a scapegoat for him. »