New Zealand stabbings: new law to close loophole to pass in September, says Ardern

PM says supermarket terrorist had fraudulent refugee status amid warnings against kneejerk reactions

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said that a legal loophole which allowed an Islamic State-inspired terrorist to remain free will be closed off with new legislation by the end of September.

The country had tried for years to deport Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, a 32-year-old Sri Lankan man who was shot dead by police following Friday’s attack at a supermarket in Auckland. Seven people were hurt in the attack, five of them with stab wounds. Three of those injured were in a critical condition in hospital on Saturday.

Samsudeen was fighting to keep his refugee status in New Zealand when he carried out the attack, which Ardern said was inspired by the Islamic State.

Officials had tried to detain Samsudeen in jail until his asylum case was resolved but there were no legal grounds for doing so. Instead, 30 officers watched him around the clock for more than 50 days before he grabbed a knife from a supermarket shelf and attacked shoppers, metres away from the undercover police surveilling him.

The attack provoked fresh debate about a proposed law change currently before parliament that would make the act of planning a terrorist attack a crime – a legal gap identified after the Christchurch shooting. The government has vowed to fast-track this reform in the wake of Friday’s attack.

“We are still working to have that legislation passed before the end of the month,” Ardern said at a news conference. “The really helpful thing is it has already gone through substantial public consultation so people have already had their say and we haven’t needed to rush that process. Now what we will do is go through that procedural process in parliament a little quickly.”

Samsudeen had fraudulently secured refugee status, Ardern said, and his status as a “protected person” barred his deportation to Sri Lanka.

Ardern said the government had tried to keep Samsudeen out of the community, including looking at whether he could be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, due to his history of mental illness.

“I was later advised that prevention orders could not be used and that he had refused psychological assessment,” Ardern said.

Speaking to RNZ, counter-terrorism expert Paul Buchanan questioned why the act had not been used to detain the man.

But the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Shaun Robinson, said the act was there to help people get well, not to be used as stopgap to fill holes in the criminal law.

Statements that the act should have been used in this case equate violent activity and extremist beliefs or action with mental illness, Robinson said.

“Extremist beliefs are not a mental illness, they are a choice that people make and expose themselves to repeatedly, whether they be white-supremacist ideologies; whether they be Islamic State inspired.”

While Samsudeen may have had mental health problems that made him more vulnerable to radical ideologies, there are many others who act on ideologies without evidence of mental illness, he said.

“It’s wrong to just conflate it all together. It is also wrong to assume that if this man had had treatment for his mental distress, that would have prevented this terrorist [attack].”

Amnesty International said Samsudeen’s case involved civil and criminal proceedings and touched on several international conventions.

“A complex case like this should not be used to make blanket law in the heat of the moment,” said Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand executive director, Meg de Ronde.

“Especially law that has the potential to harm vulnerable people or restrict civil liberties. Big decisions should not be rammed through during times of crisis.”

A police officer on guard at Countdown Lynmall the morning after the terrorist attack in a supermarket in Auckland, New Zealand.
A police officer on guard at Countdown Lynmall the morning after the terrorist attack in a supermarket in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

On Sunday, the deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, said the government had explored every legal avenue to keep the community safe.

“We have at every turn … gone to every part of the law.”

Robertson said a person could not be detained under the Immigration Act for anything other than deportation. “We are looking at the full sweep of the Immigration Act,” he said.

“If we were to change that there is a very significant move and would need quite a lot of consideration.”

The cabinet is considering the possibility of a wider investigation after the man’s death. There were a range of reviews that are possible, Robertson said.

But other MPs are cautioning against a kneejerk reaction. The Green party’s immigration spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, told RNZ she was apprehensive of any law change that would make it easier to deport someone who was granted refugee status.

“We’re actually doing something that’s pretty serious and pretty kneejerk in terms of whether it would ever have addressed any of the issues that come about when we’re talking about radicalisation here in New Zealand,” Ghahraman said. “It’s really missing the point and doing something that’s dangerous.”

She said the focus should be on rehabilitation rather than immigration status.


Eva Corlett

The GuardianTramp

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