SIS accused of breaching NZ Muslims' rights: It's 'unethical, misleading'

by Phil Pennington / 25 March, 2019
Photo: 123rf

Photo: 123rf

The Human Rights Foundation has released research to RNZ it says backs up its demands for an open and transparent inquiry into the security agencies and the terror attacks.

The research shows the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) used informal chats and offers of payment to young men, who were not advised of their rights and who felt pressure to spy on their mosques. At the same time, it appears comparatively little state monitoring of white supremacists was going on.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has said the inquiry announced into the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), SIS and other agencies in the wake of the terror attacks was vital to test whether security agencies had, by their very nature, "organisational blind spots" to a white supremacist threat that "might have been in plain sight".

The agencies began monitoring the far right in earnest only nine months ago.

But the SIS has been busy. Its surveillance, along with Customs' intercepts at Auckland Airport, led Muslim people to raise concerns with the Human Rights Foundation, which prompted it to do the research and hold a dozen closed-door meetings with multiple agencies in 2017 and 2018.

Read more: I never thought I could be in danger over my beliefs – until Friday 15 MarchIslamic Women's Council repeatedly lobbied to stem discrimination

The SIS was not advising people of their rights when it invited young men along to "chat" and it was unclear if this might still be going on, said foundation executive director Peter Hosking.

"It would be a sort of general chat over coffee for some time, and then right at the very end they would find some really serious allegations being put to them, and they suddenly realised this was a serious interview and attempt to gain information," Mr Hosking said.

The foundation's report quotes many people it interviewed nationwide - here are just two examples:

"Interviews are chat, chat, chat, then at the end they brought in his Facebook post, didn't expect it ... felt very shocked. That is when it hit me - they are here for me, you fit the profile," one person said of the SIS chats.

"We are scared because they can take information we give and then flick it back onto you," another said about the Customs agency.

It was unethical and unlawful, Mr Hosking said.

One of the researchers, Faisal Al-Asaad said if, as seemed likely, the information gained was put into the SIS database, then this also risked contaminating the data that the SIS shared with Customs and police.

He spoke to about 10 men who had had SIS "chats" and who spoke of others who were approached, with some being offered money to participate.

"They conveyed the feeling that they were being asked to spy and inform on their communities and their mosques," said Mr Al-Asaad. "The pressure was to convey to the SIS what kind of culture there was and whether people felt like there was any kind of threat of so-called extremist Islamic ideology circulating."

Some of the men appear to have been picked out because they had received online what authorities thought was extremist material, he said.

The tactic drove a wedge between those targeted and their communities who saw them talking to the SIS, Mr Hosking said.

This two-fold pressure contributed to one man leaving to live in Australia, Mr Al-Asaad said.

The foundation then persuaded half a dozen agencies including Customs, police and, less often, the SIS, to attend 13 round-table meetings about the findings, to plead for greater cultural awareness and more positive action in place of the monitoring.

"This is consistent feedback received from all the Muslim community ... that they would have liked to see funding and resourcing of social support and services, particularly of Muslim youth rather than the monitoring and surveillance," Mr Al-Asaad said.

Immediately after the Christchurch terror attacks, Muslim leaders spoke up criticising what they see as ongoing excessive surveillance that only serves to alienate their young people. At the same time, they've been struggling - and failing - to get government agencies to set up a national strategy that could include funding social workers at mosques to work with young people.

Mr Hosking admitted they did not confront the SIS about the cafe chats, because first of all they wanted them to come to the round-table meetings, and second they wanted to keep them there. "They did consider that they were entitled to proceed with these chats. That was probably as far as we were able to take it since we're not the oversight authority."

The foundation has raised the matter with the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), but does not know what has been done. RNZ has asked the IGIS about this.

The foundation has since stepped up telling people their rights, publishing 2000 pamphlets on this topic.

It has also been keeping pressure on Customs about its airport intercepts.

Customs eased its handling at Auckland Airport by allowing people it was questioning to use their cellphones to tell families they were delayed, but anecdotal evidence was this was patchy and not always the case now, Mr Hosking said.

The activities of the agencies and the many unanswered questions around this, and around what was being done about the Far Right, meant an inquiry had to be as open as possible or it would not be trusted by the foundation or the Muslim community, he said.

The SIS said this was an operational matter it could not comment on. It was unaware of the issues the Human Rights Foundation had raised, or of the foundation's questions around its use of "declared" and "undeclared" interviews, it said in its statement.

It provided previous commentary about how it targeted all forms of extremism.

Read the SIS's director of security Rebecca Kitteridge's 2016 speech on the main challenges facing the SIS; how well equipped the SIS is to meet those challenges and how it maintains a balance between the secrecy needed for its work with a need to be transparent.

The Customs agency said the round tables had been "open and constructive, and we remain committed to continuing conversations to help educate and reassure our communities".

"Customs is not aware of the nature or content of any informal chats, or any shared database with SIS," its group manager Intelligence, Investigations and Enforcement, Jamie Bamford said in a statement.

"Customs maintains its own database for border processing. The SIS do have direct access to the Customs database, but there are strict controls around this as per the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.

"Customs does not risk assess passengers based on religion or belief, and collects no data on religion or belief. Risk-based assessments are used to identify passengers that may need further questioning or searching to ensure neither they nor their belongings pose a risk to the border. Customs does not have any involvement in the Countering Violent Extremism project."

The government agencies were asked to comment on tape but have not done so.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.

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