The Blonde Terror Suspect Among New Zealand's Restive Indigenous
A police clampdown on Maori activists in New Zealand netted an unlikely “terror” suspect: 27-year-old Urs Signer of Switzerland. Awaiting his trial, Signer continues life as “usual” in the indigenous village of Parihaka, where he lives with his Maori part
PARIHAKA, New Zealand – Vapors rise from the lush green fields surrounding Parihaka; it's been a cold, star-filled night but now the hot morning sun is drying the dew on the grasses. On the horizon stands snow-capped Taranaki. Like other volcanoes in New Zealand, Taranaki is only "sleeping."" Nobody knows if and when it will wake up.
In front of the marae, this tiny village's communal building, guests are gathering. Singing Maori women encourage them to enter. Inside, the walls are hung with images of dead ancestors. The residents of Parihaka are getting ready for the traditional hongi. Each guest takes the hand of a host, and the two touch noses and foreheads, sharing their breath which is the force of life. It's a sign of trust. Once a month, residents and visitors meet in this Maori village for talks that sometimes last for days. "All subjects are open for discussion,"" says the chair, Ruakere Hond.
Community debates are an ancient tradition for the natives of Aotearoa, which is what the Maori call New Zealand. In Parihaka, Maori is spoken during the morning, and during the afternoon English may also be spoken. "It's a way to make sure our language and culture survive,"" Hond says.
A tall, blonde man stands out at the gathering: he is Urs Signer, of Switzerland. The 27-year-old European man lives in Parihaka with his Maori partner, and, carrying their small son Piriniki, he is meeting and greeting in fluent Maori.
If it were up to the New Zealand police, Signer would be behind bars. As far as they are concerned, he's a terrorist. This student, musician and activist is one of 17 people arrested during a police raid of the Maori village of Ruatoki on North Island. Elite forces cordoned the area off, searched homes and arrested village residents. According to police at the time, the round-up capped a long period of secret surveillance. It was a matter of national security, they said: a group of nationalists had been in training for armed attack to bring down the government "IRA-style.""
Terrorism is a serious charge. Anyone convicted of it faces the possibility of life imprisonment. This was the first time the police and prosecutor general used New Zealand's Terrorism Suppression Act as legal basis for action. Critics call the decision a delayed reaction based on the hysteria that gripped New Zealand after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City. The decade-old attack in the United States sparked rumors in New Zealand of backcountry "terror camps."
Just days after the arrests the prosecutor decided against charging the detainees under the anti-terrorism legislation. But because four weapons and 250 rounds of ammo were seized during the raid, charges of violating gun laws were brought against five of the detainees. The defendants, who were also accused of belonging to a "criminal organization,"" have been awaiting trial since 2007.
Rugby and elections take precedence
A court date was originally set for late May 2011. It has since been pushed back to February 2012, after the rugby world cup in September and the elections in November. "They're trying to wear us down,"" says Signer. "It's a burden for all of us, for our families and friends. Especially since none of us knows what we supposedly did.""
On advice from his lawyer, Singer is refusing to say anything else on the matter. He won't explain, for example, how he came to be involved with the Maori, what the group was doing or what exactly the charges are. Whatever the story is, researcher Rawinia Higgins, who teaches Maori culture in Wellington, says unequivocally that "the accusations of terrorism are laughable."" Nor does it surprise her that the defendants may have had weapons: "These are remote areas, everybody has a gun. They're all hunters.""
But the village of Ruotaki, whose residents are almost exclusively Maori, is one of several focal points for Maori activism and nationalism in New Zealand. Arrested along with Signer was Tame Iti, a well-known activist with a full-face traditional moko tattoo. He is part of a movement hostile to the often violent colonization of New Zealand by Great Britain in the early 19th century. Some supporters of the movement fall for an independent ‘"homeland"" and others for expelling the pakeha, as white New Zealanders are known, altogether.
Urs Signer does not like hearing the word "nationalism"" used in conjunction with Maori activists. He describes his partner as "an anarchist; she would never call herself a nationalist."" Signer himself has a long history of political activism. In his hometown of Basel, he belonged to the anti-military "Schweiz ohne Armee"" group. Over the past few years, however, all of his energy has been devoted to Maori issues. He appears to be fully integrated in the little community of Parihaka. Indeed, community members have come to respect the counsel of this young foreigner as much as they do the advice of the village elders.
It's time to eat. The women have been cooking since early morning. Vegetables, sweet potatoes, salted meat. Most of the food is produced right here in the community, by all the members. ‘‘I'm a vegetarian,"" Signer says. "But that doesn't mean I don't know how to kill and butcher cattle." While everybody is eating, tradition dictates there be no debating. Everybody sits at long tables, young and old alike—older people are well-integrated in most Maori communities. People talk and laugh; everybody is included, nobody is left out.
Of New Zealand's population of 4.3 million, 14.6% are Maori. Their decades-old fight for more self-determination has been fundamentally successful. Hardly any other country has achieved so much in such a short time as New Zealand with regard to integrating its ethnic groups. As recently as the 1970s, many Maori were ashamed of their ethnicity; members of Maori tribes were at the bottom of the social ladder, had hardly any political clout, and suffered severe social problems. And while many, mostly urban Maori remain underprivileged to this day in terms of jobs, education and health care, the indigenous group as a whole is well-represented in parliament and enjoys increased presence in business and university communities.
A new enemy
Thanks in great part to the commitment of activists, New Zealand was forced to look back and to try to make up for past injustices. In 1975, the then Labor government began taking Maori claims seriously. The Waitangi Tribunal was established to make recommendations, resulting variously in reconciliation with various tribes, land restitution, and compensation. Tribes have since become one of the largest conglomerates in the country, with interests in tourism, construction, retail, exports and fisheries. Going hand-in-hand with reconciliation was a quota system to build Maori representation in parliament and give them a guaranteed number of seats. The Maori Party, which was founded in 2004, is a major player in Prime Minister John Key's government.
Taranaki glows in the light of the evening sun. Once again today, the main topics of discussion in the marae are the upcoming trial and fears about the verdicts, even though the accused aren't likely to receive more than very mild sentences. "The anti-terror law has only one purpose, to prevent legitimate political opposition, particularly on the part of the Maori," Signer says.
Some no longer see the government as their main opponent. For these activists, parts of the private sector have become enemy number one. In many parts of the country they are fighting the oil and gas industry, which seeks to build rigs in traditional hunting and fishing areas. The Maori fear destruction of the landscape for which they feel culturally and morally responsible. Thanks to land restitution, many of them have won the right to join in the conversation.
Except in Taranaki, where the trial is holding reconciliation up. Here, in the shadow of the volcano, the Maori lost their land in bloody battles with the British. It now belongs to white farmers—descendants of the soldiers that slaughtered their ancestors.
Read the original article in German.
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