A New Zealand jury has acquitted three anti-war activists of breaking into a spy base and committing wilful damage to property.
The case has provoked dismay among the Laura Norda brigade because the trio successfully mounted the defence of “claim of right” – that they had acted to save human lives and prevent others suffering.
An appeal looks likely.
For the moment, however, Dominican friar Peter Murnane, 69, schoolteacher and organic gardener Adrian Leason, 45, and farmer Sam Land, 26, are basking in their unexpected victory in the Wellington District Court.
Pic: Leason and Murnane
They are all members of an outfit called “Christian Ploughshares”.
The accused admitted that they had broken into the Waihopai spy base, also known as the Government Communications Security Bureau facility, near Blenheim in the South Island.
However, they told the court they were driven by the belief that the satellite dish they damaged caused human suffering.
They deflated the kevlar cover of one of the two satellite dishes with a sickle.
The accused pleaded not guilty to burglary and wilful damage.
The jury took two hours to agree with them.
The base (pic) is part of a network of interception facilities linking intelligence agencies in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Britain and the USA.
At the time of the attack in April 2008 the then Prime Minister Helen Clark condemned it as a “senseless act of criminal vandalism”.
The court heard that after breaking into the site and slashing the dome the three built a shrine and knelt in prayer to remember the people killed in US military action in Iraq.
The spy base is a regular target for activists.
In 1996 a TV3 film crew entered the facility and filmed the operations room through a window.
There was another break-in in 1999.
Since the St Patrick’s Day verdict commercial talkback radio and the letters pages have been drowned with protests opposing the “greater good” or “claim of right” defence.
Marlborough District councillor Gerald Hope fumed:
“If I was a juror I would have wanted a conviction.”
On the other hand local Green activist and anti-bases campaigner Steffan Browning said the verdict was a victory for morality:
“These men, in a selfless act, deflated the spy base dome to save lives in Iraq and to raise attention to the base’s involvement in US led wars.”
But the morality argument doesn’t always swing it.
In the US in February, anti-abortion campaigner Scott Roeder was convicted of murdering an abortion doctor after the same defence failed.
His lawyers argued that the slaying was justified because Roeder was attempting to save the lives of unborn children.
The trans-Tasman case is unlikely to impress the shell-backed members of the Australian judiciary.
If juries swallow the line that it is lawful for protesters to conduct anti-war protests and invade military installations in the honest belief that their actions will prevent harm being done to others – heaven knows where it will end.