Activist considers court action against police informer

PROTESTER SIMON OOSTERMAN might bring charges against police informer Rob Gilchrist for harming his case at a trial over the police use of pepper spray.

The Sunday Star-Times last week revealed Gilchrist was a police informer who had spied for nearly a decade on protest organisations such as Greenpeace and animal welfare groups.

Oosterman said Gilchrist had agreed to appear as a witness for him in a case in July this year, but had turned up at court wearing a T-shirt with a gun on it.

The shirt had the words “This is my Glock, her name is Susan, there are many like her, but she is mine,” Oosterman told the Star-Times.

“It was a totally inappropriate and I do think it would have had an effect [on the court],” he said.

Oosterman, pepper-sprayed by police during a 2005 anti-GE protest at the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua, was awarded $5000 damages after the judge decided the police had made unreasonable use of the pepper spray.

Oosterman said Gilchrist had also given exaggerated evidence and had provoked the security guards and police during the protest.

Gilchrist, who was the protest group’s liaison officer with the police even though he was working as a police informer at the time, had been “totally confrontational” during the protest. He was “pushing security guards around . . . he created a situation of tension” which in turn led to the pepper spraying.

Oosterman’s lawyer, Graeme Minchin, said Gilchrist’s provocative appearance at the court case could have meant his client won less money in damages than he might otherwise have done.

It also appeared likely that Gilchrist had broken legal privilege by forwarding to police the evidence he would be giving at the trial.

“Police agents rarking up demonstrators and then going into court giving evidence that is totally counterproductive, or trying to do such – that’s another level above just merely snooping,” Minchin said.

Minchin said he might lay a complaint with the Independent Police Conduct Authority or bring a private prosecution for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

The Star-Times investigation revealed that Gilchrist had been spying on a range of groups and had also forwarded emails from unions and the Green Party to police. The Greens and the unions have asked the government to set up an independent inquiry into police spying on political groups.

Gilchrist’s role was uncovered when he asked his girlfriend, protester Rochelle Rees, to fix his computer. She found emails in it from the Special Investigation Unit, a police unit set up in 2004 to deal with terrorism and threats to national security.

Meanwhile, a former undercover police officer is concerned at police use of informers inside protest groups, saying it is a “dangerous attack on democracy”.

Andrew Harland says the precise reasons that make undercover work so effective in the criminal world make it extremely dangerous when used against political groups.

He said the “perception of undercover cops being everywhere” helps keep a lid on crime, but “Apply the same thinking to protest groups and what is the probable consequence?” he said. “The fear of informers is now on their minds so that legitimate protest groups are suspicious of new members and supporters are nervous about taking part in politics. Suddenly it’s harder to accept new members, fewer people have a say on political issues and our democracy suffers.”

Any small advantages in detecting possible crime were far outweighed by harming legitimate political activity.

Another former police officer told the Star- Times about working as a “radical agent” – the police name for undercover officers who infiltrate political groups – in an earlier era of police spying on protest groups and universities. Two radical agents, including this officer, were instructed to infiltrate Auckland anti-nuclear groups in July and August 1983 to gather information about planned protests against the US nuclear cruiser USS Texas.

One agent attended Peace Squadron meetings, monitoring plans for on-water protests and recording who was going on each boat. Another attended meetings at the “Epicentre” peace offices where anti-nuclear campaigners, including Green MP Keith Locke’s sister Maire Leadbeater, were organising protests and publicity.

The officer, who personally supported the anti-nuclear cause, “felt uncomfortable” about the assignment but “didn’t have the confidence to say ‘no”‘. The police radical agents were aware that the Security Intelligence Service had “deeper” and longer-term agents in the same groups but didn’t know who they were. Radical agents were also used during the 1981 Springbok Tour.