SURREY, British Columbia - A police frame-up and violence-baiting attack against 18 fighters for Native Indian rights is rapidly unraveling in a courthouse in this Vancouver suburb. The Gustafsen 18 are facing criminal charges ranging from trespass and public mischief to possession of firearms dangerous to the public peace. Two defendants are charged with attempted murder of police officers.
The charges stem from a government and police assault on an encampment celebrating Native Indian spiritualism and culture at Gustafsen Lake in central British Columbia in the summer of 1995. The celebration had become an annual event, but in July 1995, acting at the behest of a rancher with a specious claim to the land surrounding the lake, police ordered participants off the land. They refused, affirming that the land was territory Indians had not ceded. The British Columbia government, with the backing of Ottawa, then directed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada's federal police force, to force them out by any means.
The defense campaign has exposed startling evidence of the lengths to which the police and provincial and federal governments went.
RCMP negotiator Dennis Ryan then asks, "Did you find somebody else that could help us with a disinformation or smear campaign?"
"Smear campaigns are our specialty," answers a smiling RCMP Sergeant Peter Montague. He was the officer responsible for media relations as the police carried out a planned escalation of the confrontation.
Montague was challenged by defense lawyer George Wool in testimony on January 23. "You were conditioning the Canadian public - including prospective jurors - that the people at Gustafsen Lake were terrorists," the lawyer charged.
"That was the message, yes," replied Montague. He described his job as striking "a balance as to what the public has a right to know and what they should know."
The tape of the strategy session is part of 50 hours of filming of the standoff, which RCMP witnesses have said now serves as a training videotape for the force.
Jurors at the trial first saw the tape in December. The judge quickly ordered a ban on publication of its contents. The public revelation of the tape was in defiance of that gag order.
Montague's bragging about RCMP smear campaigns has embarrassed the capitalist media in the province. All news agencies faithfully repeated whatever stories the RCMP fed them during the standoff. Until the videotape revelation, they have conducted a virtual news blackout of the trial, which began last July.
Police testimony last fall revealed that the rancher, Lyle James, had no legal title to land at Gustafsen Lake. The cop in charge of the local RCMP detachment testified in September that he accepted "hearsay evidence" from some local residents as his basis to support the rancher's claim.
The next day, the cops held a press conference charging that they had come under fire from the camp and announcing a massive increase in the police siege. Four hundred cops and units of the Canadian army were eventually deployed.
Once the option of escalating the conflict was decided, front-line cops had authorization to shoot to kill. "What the RCMP set in motion at Gustafsen Lake was a Waco, Texas- style shoot out," charged defense campaign spokesperson John Hill at a public meeting in Vancouver last month. "We are fortunate that our actions to defend ourselves denied them that chance."
Hill was referring to the armed attack by FBI and other U.S. federal agents against a wooden complex in Waco, Texas, housing the Branch Davidian religious sect. The April 19, 1993, assault, which came after a 51-day siege of the religious group, resulted in the holocaust of the compound and the deaths of 86 people, including 17 children. Other testimony at the trial has revealed: Police lied in justifying the use of a land mine to blow up a truck driven by two participants in the encampment on September 11. They claimed that the occupants were armed and had previously fired on police helicopters. Montague admitted January 24 that the cops had no such evidence. The passengers of the truck miraculously escaped injury from the blast.
In testimony on January 28, RCMP Staff Sergeant Ken Porter was slammed by defense lawyers for the force's repeated use of the word "terrorists" to describe camp participants when none had any background remotely related to terrorism. "The whole thing is hearsay," the cop admitted.
The RCMP admit to firing between 10,000 and 20,000 rounds of ammunition into the encampment Sept. 11, 1995, in an unsuccessful effort to force a surrender of the activists.
Following that failure, the cops considered asking for a bigger deployment of the Canadian army. "Four thousand-plus would be needed...100 to one," wrote Deputy RCMP Commissioner Dennis Farrell in a September 13 memo.
The police siege ended on Sept. 17, 1995, with the peaceful arrests of the camp occupants.
"We have been confident all along in winning this trial because we have the truth on our side," Bill Lightbown told the Militant. Lightbown was a participant in the encampment and one of the spokespeople for the defense campaign of the Gustafsen 18. "The only possibility for a conviction was if the judge could keep a lid on evidence of the police frame-up. But the testimony we have forced out of the RCMP witnesses has blown the cover off that.
"Our concern now is that the judge may do some damage control by dismissing the charges and putting an end to the trial. We want the whole truth to come out, not only the RCMP's actions but also all of what their political masters in the provincial and federal governments said and did."
Testimony by defense witnesses is due to begin later in February.
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