5 September 2011
When is damage to public or private property justifiable on the basis that it apparently advances a cause or promotes a grievance?
This question would have returned to the minds of many people last month when the so-called Waihopai Three appeared in the High Court in Wellington to respond to a claim that they should pay for damages caused to a satellite dish at the communication s base near Blenheim.
The Government Communications Security Bureau sued the three for the $1.2 million it cost to repair the vandalism which the accused defended on the grounds that the Waihopai base spies on other countries.
The three men were acquitted in March last year on charges of burglary and willful damage by a District Court jury, a verdict that was greeted with dismay as the three were quite open about what they had done and their claims that they said excused their actions.
It could be argued that the Government’s security agency is on a hiding to nothing seeking the money from the three when, between them, they would not be able to raise a fraction of the amount sought.
However there are important matters of principle and justice involved and a need to send a strong message that illegal actions should not go unpunished. Winning the suit may not provide compensation for the damage caused but would at least give some clarity and direction for a situation muddied by the jury’s startling conclusion.
While there is no doubt about the sincerity of the three’s beliefs they crossed the line when they damaged public property, paid for by taxpayers. Under the cloak of humility and poverty they seem to argue that their personal beliefs entitle them to act as if they are above the law.
It has always been accepted in New Zealand that actions have consequences. So when many Kiwis protested against the Springbok tour in 1981 they accepted that if they stepped outside of the law they would face the consequences, including prison terms.
The case is in a small way like that of O J Simpson, the American football star and actor who was acquitted by a jury of killing his wife and a friend despite what seemed like overwhelming and condemnatory evidence against him.
Later the families of both deceased sued Simpson for damages in a civil trial and a jury found that Simpson was liable for damages for wrongful death and battery. The reaction was that at least a financial penalty meant that Simpson did not walk away totally vindicated.
The right to protest is very much part of a democracy. But when that protest breaks the law or impinges on other people’s rights then this should be harshly treated.
The attack on the base has been justified on the basis that the bureau is “involved in criminal activity” under law. But the three have taken a rather long bow with their unproven suspicions to connect the base to wars in the Middle East and other activities and have precious little to justify their actions.
What is to stop the three from repeating the vandalism on another military installation or government building because of their beliefs?
If we expect our children to understand and respect the laws of the country there needs to be a clear indication of the potential results of bad behaviour.