Shadow of doubt over Nazi claims

By Neil McMahon
December 21, 2005
Underground movement … an image from the website
www.tunnelrats.org.au showing Andrew Sanders, who was released on
bail after being arrested on Sunday.

Underground movement … an image from the website www.tunnelrats.org.au showing Andrew Sanders, who was released on bail after being arrested on Sunday.

ANDREW SANDERS walked into court in the morning branded a neo-Nazi with violent intentions. He left in the afternoon free on bail and painted as odd, perhaps even stupid - but not the community menace suggested by the charges against him.

In the hours in between, his solicitor had succeeded in giving magistrate Ian McRae room to move where there appeared to be almost none. Squeezed between politics and the law, and having to abide by new legislation covering riot-related offences, Mr McRae jumped firmly to where his reading of the evidence took him.

The case was "no doubt attracting great attention by not only those in the media, but I suspect in the Police Service and the legislature", he said, acknowledging the pressure for the courts to be tough. He "may well be criticised" for what he was about to do. But Andrew Sanders - with strict conditions attached - was free to go.

Bail under any conditions seemed a surprising outcome for the case against the 25-year-old from Willmot, who was arrested on Sunday during the police blitz on beachside suburbs.

He and the four men arrested with him in Ramsgate had been linked to white supremacist groups. On Monday, when his home was raided, police described a haul of weapons and suspicious items, while the Police Commissioner, Ken Moroney, reiterated the link to neo-Nazi groups. The same day, politicians reminded the courts they wanted refusal of bail to be the default position.

But in Penrith Local Court yesterday, Sanders's solicitor, Phil Gibson, methodically cast a cloud over nearly every aspect of the case.

A mask seized by police was not, as police alleged, a device to "disguise face with intent to commit an indictable offence", Mr Gibson said. Brandishing photos of his client wearing it, he explained that Sanders was into "urban caving": he and his mates went exploring under the city in sewers and tunnels. This was why he had the mask - "You can buy them at Bunnings" - as well as smoke canisters, which were used as a safety device underground.

Yes, Sanders had a pistol in a safe in his bedroom, Mr Gibson said. But whether it was unlicensed, as police alleged, was a matter of dispute between his client and the Firearms Registry. And Sanders's mother had given police an innocent explanation for a can of Mace.

Why, though, was he visiting a website, www.fightback.org.au, said by police to be a white supremacist site? Mr Gibson said it was hardly as described. The site might be "vaguely associated with some white supremacist thought", he said. "But it is still the case in this state for the time being that you cannot be prosecuted for your thoughts."

The prosecutor, Jonathan Falzon, tried to salvage the case against bail, arguing that when arrested Sanders had literature promoting a Fightback rally. The magistrate responded that the rally had ended 140 minutes before the arrests.

Mr Falzon ploughed on: "He's got a 25-litre drum of petrol in his car." Mr McRae: "But he hasn't been charged with that."

In the end, the magistrate had taken a look at the Fightback and Tunnel Rats websites and was sailing squarely towards bail.

The charge relating to the mask had a "remote" chance of succeeding. The police facts sheet was "somewhat inflammatory" - particularly in alleging that someone in the car on Sunday had used words like "let's go bash Lebs". The statement had not been attributed to anyone, he said.

It would be easy for the court to refuse bail on the basis of community protection, he said. "But the court has greater obligations than that and certainly there's a requirement to assess the facts."

Community safety could be addressed by strict bail conditions. He listed them: Sanders was to continue living with his mother and not leave home without her; not communicate with the other men arrested; report to police daily; and his mother was to post $1000 bail. With that, Sanders - described by Mr Gibson as at worst "maybe a bit stupid" - walked free.

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