Three activists who freely admitted breaking into a government spybase near Blenheim and slashing an inflatable plastic dome covering a satellite dish have walked free.
Their defence – that they mounted the attack to prevent others' suffering – has been successfully used by Iraq-war protesters overseas, but is thought to be a New Zealand first.
Teacher Adrian Leason, 45, Dominican friar Peter Murnane, 69, and farmer Sam Land, 26, were charged with burglary and wilful damage at the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) base at Waihopai.
The prosecution said the trio cut their way through fences into the base on April 30, 2008, then slashed the plastic cover over a satellite dish with sickles.
The three men readily admitted attacking the base, but said they were driven by a belief that the satellite caused human suffering and their actions to shut it down, if only temporarily, were lawful.
A jury in Wellington District Court took two hours to acquit them of all charges yesterday. A similar defence – known as the greater good defence – has been run by protesters in Britain, Ireland and Germany.
In 2006, a jury acquitted five peace campaigners who used an axe and hammers to cause US$2.5 million damage to a United States Navy plane that was refuelling at Shannon airport, Ireland, in 2003 on its way to Kuwait to deliver supplies for use in the impending war.
In the US last month, anti-abortion campaigner Scott Roeder was convicted by a judge of murdering an abortion doctor after failing with a similar defence. His lawyers had argued for a lesser conviction because Roeder believed that the killing was justified to save the lives of unborn children.
Auckland lawyer Peter Williams, QC, did not know of the greater good defence being used in New Zealand before.
"I would have thought it would have been looked at somewhat sceptically by the conservative New Zealand judiciary.
"I've always thought it was quite a good defence myself. It's very democratic."
Wellington lawyer John Miller said that, in acquitting the men, the jury would have to have decided whether they genuinely believed their actions would save lives and, if so, whether the force they used was reasonable. "If you believe someone's in grave danger of suffering and you prick a balloon [at the spybase], that seems quite reasonable, given your subjective belief."
Quite frankly, we are astounded by yesterday's verdict, and very, very worried about the precedent it sets. Does this now give anti-abortion protesters the green light to attack abortion clinics because "someone's in grave danger of suffering"? Does this now give right-wing extremists the green light to attack mosques because of their hate of Islam on the grounds that "someone's in grave danger of suffering"? Feel free to add your own scenario.
Whatever analogy you draw, the implications are chilling. The activist community will doubtless be rubbings its collective hands in glee, knowing now that it can run the "claim of right" defence, and claim the Waihopai case as a precedent.
We are no lawyers. We don't know whether the Crown has grounds for appeal in this case. We do however call on Attorney-General Chris Finlayson to get the Solicitor-General onto the job, and if there are grounds for appeal against the verdict, to exercise that right and contest it.