New Internationalist

Crackdown

Issue 376

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Rights & Freedoms / TARGETING ACTIVISTS

Crackdown
Aziz Choudry on the post-9/11 chill that is undermining
struggles for social justice worldwide.

It’s one thing to hold forth on how the suppression of dissent marches hand in hand with free market capitalism. It’s quite another to have the idea thrown in your face by secret agents invading your house in the ‘burbs’.

That is what happened to me back in July 1996, while I was an organizer for a forum and protest rally against a meeting of Asia/Pacific Trade Ministers in Christchurch. It was probably the most embarrassing, botched ‘security intelligence’ operation in the history of New Zealand/Aotearoa. The skitterish NZSIS (the local state security heavies) were forced to make an unceremonious run for it when they were accidentally found out. Five days later, police raided the house again, this time looking for ‘bomb-making equipment’. They found nothing. The smell of a government dirty-tricks campaign hung heavy in the air.

After a farcical official ‘inquiry’, I sued the Government. New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that it was an illegal break-in. One judge declared that courts ‘would not be awestruck by the mantra of national security’. New security intelligence legislation passed in 1996 had already extended the definition of ‘national security’ to include New Zealand’s economic and international well-being – carte blanche to keep tabs on those critical of the prevailing state orthodoxy. Soon after, the Government changed the law to expand NZSIS search powers. Since 9/11 New Zealand’s security state has been further expanded.

Activists beware! The hard face of state power in Bogotá. Photo: B Heger / Exile Images
Activists beware! The hard face of state power in Bogotá. Photo: B Heger / Exile Images

‘The trouble with normal is it always gets worse,’ sings Bruce Cockburn. And the War on Terror is the new cloak of impunity protecting governments from their human rights critics and chilling dissent of many kinds. For ‘free traders’ in particular, the 9/11 attacks came at an opportune time: neoliberal institutions like the IMF, World Bank and WTO were under sustained siege worldwide from social movements for their support of a destructive development model and their lack of democracy. On 24 September 2001 US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick set the tone in a speech that expanded the post-9/11 McCarthyism to global justice activists: ‘Terrorists hate the ideas America has championed around the world. It is inevitable that people will wonder if there are intellectual connections with others who have turned to violence to attack international finance, globalization and the United States.’


Roots of repression
It’s an old game – expanding the powers of state police, security and intelligence agencies. Well before 9/11 the FBI was pressuring countries to adopt its requirements for surveillance of electronic communications. Governments shared intelligence databases of activists to stop people at borders prior to major international summits. But with 9/11 as pretext, the powers of surveillance, detention and arrest have been expanded with an utter contempt for the democratic rights and values which governments – from Washington to Pretoria – claim to uphold. Some definitions of ‘terrorist’ are so broad that they can be stretched to include anything from strikes to land occupations.

In 2002 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo pronounced: ‘The War on Terrorism does not distinguish between ordinary terrorists and those espousing a political ideology.’ She clearly threatened trade unions – ‘those who terrorize factories that provide jobs’. She went on to smear progressive movements in the Philippines as‘terrorists and criminals hiding behind the veil of human rights advocacies or other seemingly deceptively legitimate political advocacies’. Elmer Labog, Secretary-General of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) trade union centre, responded: ‘Arroyo is bringing back to life the ghosts of Martial Law.’

Whether it’s Cold War reds under the bed, or anarchists or anti-globalization activists, or a mindset that views every Muslim as a potential terrorist, the ‘enemy’ may change but the song remains the same, only sung more loudly. Surveillance and repression against dissenters and those communities constructed as ‘other’ have always propped up the prevailing state religion. It comes with the territory. The police mindset and operational culture equates challenges to prevailing orthodoxies as criminal activity. The militarization of protests and public spaces with a growing ‘less-than-lethal’ armoury of chemical agents and stun guns is magnified in the post-9/11 world.

After a brutal police assault on a non-violent antiwar protest in Oakland, California, Mike Van Winkle of the state-sponsored California Anti-Terrorist Information Center proclaimed: ‘If you have a group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism... You can almost argue that a protest against such a war is a terrorist act.’ It’s worth noting that millions of dollars in funding for the brutal security crackdowns at the November 2003 Miami FTAA summit and for the 2004 G8 summit in Georgia came from a US Congress Iraq appropriations bill.

Chile’s Government, meanwhile, has revised an old 1984 anti-terror law dating from the brutal Pinochet era and used it against Mapuche activists – indigenous peoples resisting not only forestry corporations’ occupation of their ancestral lands but also the plantation monoculture of pine and eucalyptus for export that they seek to introduce. Under this ‘revised’ law, charges can be brought by anyone, the accused can be held without trial for months, and anonymous witnesses and secret evidence can be introduced at trial. The minimum sentence for terrorism is 10 years. Mapuche activists have been charged with terrorism for allegedly burning areas of plantation forest, logging trucks and equipment. Arson – a crime against property, not life, liberty or physical integrity – is defined as a terrorist crime. Some are already serving jail terms. A recent high-profile case was thrown out but the state has already appealed.


Indigenous targets
New Zealand/Aotearoa has a history of break-ins, wiretaps and surveillance of indigenous activists. Several years ago, Maori lawyer/activist Annette Sykes discovered her phones had been tapped and a location-tracing device placed in her car. In November 2004 claims about the NZSIS ‘Operation Leaf’, which spied on a range of Maori organizations and individuals, hit the headlines and are now subject to an inquiry.

A 2003 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report claimed that: ‘Canada is confronted by domestic terrorism issues related to aboriginal rights, white supremacists, sovereignty, animal rights, the environment and anti-globalization.’ Native land occupations, forestry and fishing disputes have been met with massive police and military force, time and time again. Gustafsen Lake, Kanehsatake, Burnt Church, the September 2002 raids on indigenous activists on Vancouver Island by INSET (the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team) – the list goes on and on.

Detention without charge. Roundups. Disappearances. Security certificates. A climate of fear based on ignorance and suspicion. Are we back in Pinochet’s Chile? Marcos’s Manila? Or in the modern-day US and Canada? The detention of immigrants, immigration restrictions, deportations, low-intensity warfare against many communities of colour and the anti-Muslim flavour of it all – again the roots go back long before 11 September 2001. To campaign effectively against the erosion of ‘civil liberties’ we must acknowledge that, for many communities, such rights have always been tenuous at best. Subhash Kateel, an organizer with the New York-based Families for Freedom, points out: ‘It is important for people to understand that what is happening is based on the development of apartheid through immigration policies that distinguish citizens from both legal and illegal noncitizens.’

Democracy. Freedom. Tell that to the 24 mainly Pakistani students arrested, detained and deported under unsubstantiated terrorism allegations in Toronto in 2003. Or to Montrealer Adil Charkaoui, jailed, like several other Muslim men, on secret CSIS evidence. Or to Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian detained in the US on a stopover and deported – not to Canada, but to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured for a year.

Many in the global justice movement in the North have expressed outrage about new anti-terror legislation and the criminalization of dissent. Others are concerned at the effects of the post-9/11 chill. Fear of direct action and being ‘too critical’ is in the air. But movements which have hitherto paid little attention to immigration injustices and the criminalization of indigenous resistance are now taking notice. New opportunities have opened up to link campaigns against the racialization of immigration and security policies with those against neoliberalism and militarism.

We must rise to the challenge of building alliances with communities which have long been on the frontlines of struggles for justice – and which are easy targets in any state crackdown.

Aziz Choudry [image, unknown]

Aziz Choudry is an activist and writer from New Zealand/Aotearoa currently based in Montreal, Canada.


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