Friday, July 22, 2005

Greenpeace/Nuclear Non-proliferation

Felling of a Warrior

Guardian Unlimited/London/England/UK/14-Jul-05

… It is hard to understand now that what came as a relief to Edwards came as an extraordinary shock to the rest of the world, and particularly New Zealand, which had never seen a bomb explode in anger on its territory, let alone an act of terrorism. Neither has there been one since, the event remaining deeply scored on the nation's psyche.

The puzzle for the police was who could be responsible for this murderous act against a peace group, their whole ethos based on the Quaker principle of non-violent direct action, of bearing witness to moral wrongs.

In my mind, and for the crew, suspicion naturally fell on someone French; after all, they were next in line for a protest. They also had a long history of violence against Greenpeace, albeit confined to boardings vessels, using tear gas and beating crew members with truncheons. Yet an act of terrorism by the French state on the soil of a friendly power, clearly designed to kill, was still unthinkable.

Twenty years on it seems just as strange. State terrorism is something the United States and the United Kingdom are prepared to go to war over. It is something carried out by rogue states, members of the "Axis of Evil". Members of the European Union somehow do not fit the description.

But by day two of the Rainbow Warrior inquiry Auckland police were looking for French people. One had visited the ship hours before the explosion when, during an open day for the Auckland public, one unknown Frenchman had spent time looking round the crew quarters.

Within hours information was flooding into the police from all over the North Island of events involving French nationals, sightings of yachts, strange landings of equipment, movements of camper vans and rendezvous in obscure places. In a country where the population is tiny, strangers a curiosity, and French tourists rare, the sighting of so many French people seemed a remarkable coincidence.

Five days later a French "honeymoon" couple, Alain Jacques Turenge and his wife Sophie Turenge, were arrested. Inquiries revealed they were French secret agents Major Alain Mafart, aged 35, and Captain Dominique Prieur, aged 36. They were first charged with passport offences then arson and murder.

The information pouring in from all over New Zealand, the Pacific and even England built up a picture of an extensive French secret service operation to cripple the Rainbow Warrior. But it was too late to catch the perpetrators. Even though detectives interviewed four Frenchmen in the Australian territory of Norfolk Island after the attack they had not got enough evidence to hold them and the Australian government insisted the New Zealanders leave.

These four agents disappeared on a yacht which was never seen again. The official police report says officers believe the Ouvea was scuttled when the men were picked up and returned to France in a nuclear submarine.

In the time leading up to the trial of the two agents in custody French journalists continued to press President Mitterand for who had sanctioned the operation. On August 27 he issued a report which fully exonerated the French secret service. It was not credible, and when a request by New Zealand for the extradition of the crew of the Ouvea was refused it was clear this was a cover-up at top level.

By September 22 the game was up. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius admitted that the French secret service had ordered the attack on the Rainbow Warrior and the French defence minister Charles Hernu, a close ally and friend of Mitterrand, resigned, accepting responsibility and saying the president was not involved. We know now that this was not the full truth either: a recent confession by the former head of the Secret Service claims that Mitterand did, in fact, sanction the attack after all.

Astonishingly no government outside New Zealand condemned the French action, least of all Britain, despite the fact it was a British vessel.

The role and attitude of the French state remains murky. Marfart and Prieur, who clearly did not plant the bombs themselves, had their charges reduced to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years. The French government was horrified and leaned heavily on New Zealand, even threatening trade sanctions, and barring lamb imports to the European Union. Within three years the UN had brokered a deal between the two countries. The French would formally apologise, and pay $13m in compensation to the New Zealand government. They also paid a further $8m to Greenpeace, which was already suing them in the Paris courts for compensation.

As part of the deal the convicted agents were transferred to French terrority to complete their sentences. Within months they were freed to a heroes' welcome in Paris.

Greenpeace could not repair the original Rainbow Warrior and it was towed out to sea off North Island to be sunk again as a reef for sea life. The organisation used the money paid in compensation to launch the new Rainbow Warrior, a flagship larger, better equipped, and because of the French action, recognised worldwide. What happened in Auckland made Greenpeace a multinational in its own right.

The new Rainbow Warrior went back, and back again to Mururoa, and in 1996 was again the subject of an attack by the French military when it was boarded, the crew tear-gassed and equipment smashed. This time, as a journalist covering the event, I was arrested on the high seas, briefly imprisoned and interrogated on Mururoa itself while the tests continued. The worldwide protests finally led to the French abandoning nuclear testing in the Pacific.

This year I travelled to New Zealand for an anniversary party. It was clear that among the celebrations of meeting old friends and happy past times there was still some anger. Edwards, who now runs a fish restaurant in the Bay of Islands, which ironically was once a meeting place for the four French frogmen, summed up his current view: "The response, or rather non response, of the British government was a disgrace. Up to that moment I had always been proud to be British, but this was a British flagged vessel with a British citizen in desperate need of help and I heard nothing. Everything I had was sunk with the Warrior, but there was no offer of help, not even a new passport."

The Guardian applied in April under the Freedom of Information Act to try and find out what the British government knew about the attack and when, to perhaps give a clue as to why in 1985 state terrorism against British ships was acceptable. So far Downing Street has refused to answer although the Foreign Office has said it will do so soon. ….


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