Australia Orders Sweeping Investigation After System Fails Hostages

Members of the public observe the thousands of floral tributes left near the site of the Sydney cafe siege in Martin Place December 17, 2014. Jason Reed/ REUTERS

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday ordered a sweeping investigation into a deadly hostage crisis after tough new security laws and the courts failed to stop a convicted felon from walking into a Sydney cafe with a concealed shotgun.

Three people were killed, including hostage-taker Man Haron Monis, when police stormed a Sydney cafe early on Tuesday morning to free terrified hostages held at gunpoint for 16 hours. Police are investigating whether the two captives were killed by Monis or died in crossfire.

Monis, a self-styled sheikh who received political asylum from Iran in 2001, was well known to Australian authorities, having been charged as an accessory to murder and with dozens of counts of sexual and indecent assault. He had been free on bail.

Australia passed sweeping security laws in October aimed at stopping people from becoming radicalized and going to fight in conflicts such as those in Iraq and Syria, where scores of Australians have joined militant groups, as well as preventing attacks at home.

Despite those new powers, Abbott said Monis was not on any security watchlist and managed to walk undetected into the Lindt Chocolate Cafe with a legally obtained shotgun on a busy workday morning. New South Wales (NSW) state police later contradicted Abbott's assertion, telling Reuters in a statement that there was no record of Monis having a gun license.

Monis was convicted in 2012 of sending hate mail to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Abbott said the national and state governments would conduct an urgent review to identify where the system had failed in order to understand how attacks could be stopped in future.

"We do need to know why the perpetrator of this horrible outrage got permanent residency. We do need to know how he could've been on welfare for so many years. We do need to know what this individual was doing with a gun license," Abbott told reporters in Canberra.

"We particularly need to know how someone with such a long record of violence, such a long record of mental instability, was out on bail after his involvement in a particularly horrific crime. And we do need to know why he seems to have fallen off our security agencies' watchlist, back in about 2009."


The justice system in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, was also under fire.

"We were concerned this man got bail from the very beginning," said state Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.

Police had requested courts refuse Monis bail but were not paying special attention to him because his charges were not linked to political violence and he was not on any watchlist, he said. Abbott also raised concern about the bail system.

Greg Barns, a lawyer and a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, told Reuters lengthy delays between arrests and cases being heard, along with the presumption of innocence, meant more people were on bail for longer.

"There aren't enough courts, there aren't enough judges, there is not enough legal aid. Every sector within the criminal justice system is under-funded by the government," he said.

Funding for the state's criminal justice system fell 11 percent in 2012/13, according to a government report, while delays in hearing criminal matters in the state Supreme Court grew to 6.5 months in 2013 from 1.5 months in 2010, according to its annual report.

New, tougher bail laws have already been passed in the state but delays caused by the need to train police, courts and lawyers mean they do not come into force until late January.


Police said on Wednesday a man had been charged with making threatening phone calls to a mosque in western Sydney, one of the few confirmed reports of what was feared could be a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the violence.

In 2005, racially charged tension between residents from the largely white beachside neighborhood of Cronulla and Muslim youths from western Sydney degenerated into days of riots involving thousands of people.

"There has been some issues of hate or bias crime but it's certainly minimal compared to the outpouring of support," Assistant Police Commissioner Michael Fuller told reporters.

On Wednesday, people were still laying flowers and signing condolence books in Martin Place, a pedestrian mall near the scene of the cafe siege.

Police also said they would be boosting their presence in prominent locations such as Sydney Harbour, home to the Opera House, for the next three weeks as an added precaution.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said it had warned Australia repeatedly about Monis, who fled Iran claiming persecution.

Recently introduced Australian legislation expanded the intelligence services' ability to access private computer networks, cracked down on the leaking of classified information and bolstered the cooperation of the domestic and foreign intelligence services.

The government is also introducing controversial data retention laws, although Abbott said on Tuesday it was unclear whether those laws, aimed at intercepting communications between individuals plotting attacks, would have helped to stop Monis.

Critics of the security laws, touted by Abbott's conservative government as necessary to prevent attacks such as the hostage crisis, have seized on the failure to argue against the granting of further powers.

"There's no control order regime to account for this. There's no metadata inside an apparently deranged mind," Fairfax News columnist Waleed Aly wrote.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts