Taken By The State

Extradition possible for Lake Alice torture

Police say a fresh inquiry into child torture at Lake Alice might lead to charges and extradition. David Williams reports

It has been labelled a national disgrace. But could charges finally be laid for the abuse of children at a notorious state psychiatric hospital in the 1970s?

Police re-investigating the claims suggest it could still happen. An official response to a United Nations committee raises the prospect of the unit’s controversial former head being extradited from Australia.

However, after more than 40 years of disappointment – of inquiries raising their hopes only to fizzle out with no charges being laid – the victims aren’t convinced police will bring a conviction this time, either.

“They’re not capable at all,” Auckland’s Paul Zentveld says. “They’re just going ‘round in circles.”

In December, the UN’s committee against torture upheld a claim by Zentveld, who spent nearly three years at the Lake Alice state psychiatric hospital, near Whanganui, after being admitted in 1974, aged 13. Punishment for bad behaviour including electrocution on the genitals, through a machine for “electro-convulsive therapy”, or ECT.

The UN committee’s damning, but non-binding report demanded a “prompt, impartial and independent investigation” into the uncontested claims – and, where appropriate, charges to be brought against the perpetrators.

The hospital closed in 1978 and has been demolished. Chief psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks, who has always denied wrongdoing, moved to Australia in the late 1970s. But the abuse lives on in the damaged former patients, whose lives were irrevocably changed.

No one has been held accountable for abuse at Lake Alice, despite several inquiries, including a three-and-a-half-year police investigation that finished 10 years ago, concluding there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Leeks. (Almost 200 Lake Alice victims were paid compensation in the early 2000s, and the Government apologised.)

Police have now re-opened the Lake Alice file and, in their belated response to the UN, after an extension because of Covid-19, state they have launched a three-stage investigation.

Lake Alice victim Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, says: “It would be massive for so many people to have Leeks locked up.”

“The Crown Law office will be asked whether the relevant threshold for criminal charges is reached, and whether extradition of Dr Leeks from Australia would be an available option.” – NZ response to UN committee decision

The Government’s response to the UN committee report says police have undertaken a month-long file review of previous investigations.

“Police considers the allegations of ECT applied to the patients’ genitals could [original emphasis] reach the threshold of an indecent assault under the Crimes Act 1961.”

Charges under the Mental Health Act and Crimes of Torture Act have been ruled out.

In the first stage, a police team is assessing the allegations, and searching for documentation from agencies such as the Ministry of Health. “This phase will include examining statements on file from former Lake Alice staff to determine who it may be appropriate to approach to further assist the investigation.”

In phase two, police detectives and a specialist analyst will conduct interviews – “from any person that steps forward” – and analyse evidence. After criticism of its previous investigation, police say no single victim’s evidence will be treated as representative. To ensure impartiality, no police staff involved in previous Lake Alice investigations are on the current case.

Eleven former Lake Alice patients have alleged ECT was used on their genitals, police say. Three are dead, “leaving eight individuals to be located”. (Two of them are Zentveld and Richards, who were interviewed by police last year.)

The Government’s response to the UN says: “Once located, approaches will be made to see if they wish to be interviewed by detectives who are specially trained in evidential interviewing for sensitive personal crimes, in order that their allegations can be more formally and comprehensively recorded.”

Police will also “consider” approaching former patients who believe the ECT they received was given as a punishment. Subsequent interviews “could” form the basis for further action.

Leeks will be “a person of interest” in phase three of the investigation. He would be contacted “to gauge his preparedness to engage with police detectives”.

Then, the accumulated evidence will be sent to Crown Law for assessment and advice.

“The Crown Law office will be asked whether the relevant threshold for criminal charges is reached, and whether extradition of Dr Leeks from Australia would be an available option.”

Later this year, the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care is scheduled to hold public hearings about Lake Alice’s child and adolescent unit, at which police will give evidence.

Neither police nor Crown Law would comment further.

“This fight’s taken us so many years and taken such a toll on us, that it’s like being tortured all over again with this.” – Malcolm Richards

Zentveld says he’s had phone calls with the police but no direct, written notification of the new investigation. “It’s just deathly silence.”

The Government response is “gobbledygook” – “I can’t understand it,” he says. His impression is police are going around in circles. “Their investigation review is just going over what they’ve already got,” he says. “It’s just a crock of shit. It’s not giving anyone any hope at all.”

Richards, who has filed his own complaint to the UN, is frustrated police dropped a year-long investigation into his and others’ claims of sexual assault – ECT attached to the genitals – to start this fresh investigation.

To him, it’s yet another delay in a decades-long quest for justice. “This fight’s taken us so many years and taken such a toll on us, that it’s like being tortured all over again with this.”

It’s disappointing the Government’s response doesn’t mention rehabilitation or compensation, Richards says. He’s convinced police won’t press charges – that they’ll find Leeks is too frail to stand the rigours of trial, or that extradition is not in the public interest.

“It’s in our bloody best interests.”

Zentfeld’s case was taken to the UN by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights – a group aligned with the Church of Scientology. New Zealand director Mike Ferriss says police should have launched this style of investigation in 2003, following the government’s compensation payouts.

“That it’s happening now, of course, is very good and I think that it looks like, on the face of it, that the police are launching a proper investigation – that it’s impartial and so on,” he says.

“It’s very unfortunate that it’s taken so long.”

The fairness test

Legal experts have to consider the fairness of bringing a charge, Ferriss says. “But they have to also consider the unfairness of not bringing a charge.”

The UN report raised doubts about the previous police investigation, saying authorities should have found out if others could be held responsible for the alleged violations. Ferriss says this wasn’t addressed in the Government’s response. He also criticised the Government for not publicising the UN committee’s decision, as requested. (The response says options for doing so are being explored – “notably, by linking to or hosting a copy of it on police’s public-facing website”.)

Ferriss believes police are “duty bound” to charge somebody for the abuse at Lake Alice. But he admits he doesn’t know enough about the Solicitor-General guidelines for criminal prosecutions.

(The guidelines include the need for “evidential sufficiency” – that there’s enough evidence to convict someone. The supposed lack of sufficient evidence was the controversial legal veto in the potential case against the engineers of Christchurch’s CTV building, which collapsed in the 2011 quake, killing 115 people.)

In February, Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said Lake Alice remained a “damning indictment on New Zealand's past care and protection practices”, and further investigation into the abusive practices at the former psychiatric hospital was clearly required.

“In principle, the abuse and neglect of children and young people should never be allowed to go unanswered.”

Lake Alice victims have been waiting for such an answer for more than 40 years. Richards says a conviction “would mean a hell of a lot to a lot of people”.

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