A gunman responsible for a deadly siege in a Sydney cafe was once on the national security agency’s watch list — but was dropped off it years ago for reasons that remain unclear, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday.
Man Haron Monis, a 50-year-old Iranian-born, self-styled cleric described by Abbott as deeply disturbed, took 17 people hostage inside a downtown Sydney cafe on Monday.
Sixteen hours later, the siege ended in a barrage of gunfire when police rushed in to free the captives.
Two hostages were killed, along with Monis.
Abbott said that Monis was on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s watch list in 2008 and 2009, but was later dropped from it.
The agency was watching Monis because he had sent a series of offensive letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers, Abbott said.
“I don’t know why he dropped off the watch list in those days, I really don’t,” Abbott told reporters.
Monis was convicted and sentenced last year to 300 hours of community service for sending what a judge called “grossly offensive” letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009.
He later was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.
Earlier this year, he was charged with the 2002 sexual assault of a woman.
He had been out on bail on all the charges.
“We particularly need to know how someone with such a long record of violence and such a long record of mental instability was out on bail after his involvement in a particularly horrific crime,” Abbott said.
Abbott also confirmed that Monis, who wielded a shotgun throughout the siege, had a gun license.
“Plainly, there are questions to be asked when someone with such a history of infatuation with extremism, violent crime and mental instability should be in possession of a gun license,” Abbott said. “We have very tough gun laws and I guess we can be pleased that he didn’t have a more potent weapon at his disposal, but why did he have a gun license in the first place?”
Abbott promised a transparent investigation. The government is expected to release a report next month looking into all aspects of the siege.
Just three days before Monis began his deadly rampage, Australia’s highest court refused to hear his appeal against the convictions for sending the letters.
Australian High Court documents show that Chief Justice Robert French and Justice Stephen Gageler ruled at 9:50am on Friday last week that the full bench of their court would not hear Monis’ constitutional challenge to his convictions.
At 9:44am on Monday, a shotgun-wielding Monis walked into the cafe, just a short stroll from the courtroom where the ruling was delivered.
New South Wales State Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police had asked that Monis not be granted bail, but the court ruled otherwise.
Asked why Monis was not on any national security watch list, Scipione said that the charges Monis faced were not politically motivated.
“Can we, should we, would we? Clearly, we work on a priority-based system so if somebody is on a national security watch list, then we pay particular attention to them,” he said. “But on this occasion, this particular individual was not.”
The siege began when Monis walked into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe during the morning rush hour, trapping 17 customers and staffers inside.
Some of the hostages managed to escape from the cafe early in the day. Among the first group to flee was 83-year-old John O’Brien, who told reporters he had originally stopped into the cafe for a quick cup of coffee after an appointment with his eye doctor.
“I have never felt such a relief as I did when I turned that corner and saw the armed police waiting,” he said, declining to go into any specifics of what happened in the cafe because he was still talking to police.
Thousands of tearful Australians continued to visit Martin Place yesterday, a plaza in the heart of Sydney’s financial and shopping district where the Lindt cafe is located.
A makeshift memorial had grown into a mountain of flowers left to honor the hostages killed: Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old lawyer and mother of three, and Tori Johnson, the cafe’s 34-year-old manager.
Channel Seven cameraman Greg Parker witnessed the siege from the network’s studios, which are opposite the cafe.
The network broadcast live footage from the scene until police asked that they cut the feed.
The cameraman said in an interview with the network yesterday that a police sniper joined him, as he had a good vantage point to see through the cafe’s windows.
As the siege dragged into the night, Parker said Monis grew visibly agitated, shoving the hostages and positioning them between himself and the windows.
When a gunshot rang out just after 2am, the sniper said: “Window two, hostage down,” prompting police to storm the cafe.
“If they hadn’t have moved when they moved, this could have been much, much worse,” Scipione said.
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