Australia’s prime minister is demanding to know how a man with such a “long and chequered history” of violent crime as Man Horan Monis slipped through the cracks and ended up in the downtown Sydney café where he took 17 people hostage.
Horror over the deadly siege which left two hostages and the 50-year-old Iranian-born gunman dead has turned to anger as questions are being asked of the authorities, with prime minister Tony Abbott describing Monis actions as a “sick fantasy” carried out by a deeply disturbed person.
The 16-hour siege ended in a barrage of gunfire and screams early on Tuesday morning when police stormed into the Lindt Chocolat Café in a desperate bid to free the hostages.
“How can someone who has had such a long and chequered history not be on the appropriate watch list? And how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community,” Mr Abbott asked at a news conference.
“These are questions we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically.”
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 was later 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.
That history prompted a flurry of questions that remained unanswered more than a day after the siege began on Monday.
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Why was Monis out on bail? Why was he not on a terror watch list? How did he get a shotgun in a country with tough gun ownership laws?
“We are all outraged that this guy was on the street,” New South Wales premier Mike Baird said. “We need to ensure that everything is done to learn from this.”
Alongside the fury and confusion was an outpouring of grief, as crowds of tearful mourners flocked to Martin Place, a plaza in the heart of Sydney’s financial and shopping district where the Lindt café is located.
The mourners left mountains of flowers in honour of the two hostages who were killed – Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old lawyer and mother of three, and Tori Johnson, the café’s 34-year-old manager.
Officials have yet to say whether the two died in crossfire as police stormed in or were shot by their captor.
“I’ll never forget this day as long as I live,” said Jenny Borovina, who was in tears with two friends while carrying white flowers to the site.
Like so many who work in the area, Ms Borovina said she was “locked down” in her office near the café for more than four hours before police gave her the all-clear to leave.
“Australia was a really safe place before,” said Andrea Wang, who laid a bouquet of lilies at the site, near her office. “I hope our country gets through this very quickly.”
Prime minister Abbott joined the outpouring of national mourning and laid a bouquet, calling the spontaneous shrine “an expression of the innate goodness and decency which is a mark of Australian character”. At an emotional memorial service, Johnson was lauded for sacrificing his life and helping to bring the siege to an end by grabbing the gunman’s shotgun.
“Apparently seeing an opportunity, Tori grabbed the gun,” Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher said at the service. “Tragically, it went off, killing him. But it triggered the response of police and eventual freedom for most of the hostages.”
The siege began when Monis walked into the café during the Monday morning rush hour, trapping 17 customers and staffers inside. He had some of the hostages record videos of themselves reciting his demands – to have delivered a flag of the Islamic State group and to speak directly with Mr Abbott. He also forced some to hold a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith above the shop window’s festive inscription of “Merry Christmas.”
Australian Muslim groups condemned the hostage-taking and said in a joint statement that the inscription of the Islamic flag held by the hostages was a “testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals.”
The siege heightened fears of a terror attack, but it also produced solidarity among Australians who reached out to their Muslim compatriots. Many offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou – or I’ll Ride With You – was used more than 90,000 times by early yesterday.
Mr Abbott sought to portray Monis as a deluded and mentally troubled person rather than a religious fanatic.
He called the victims “decent, innocent people who got caught up in the sick fantasy of a deeply disturbed individual”. He said the siege showed Australia is not immune to violence, but doubted that Monis’ actions would inspire copycats.
Monis grew up in Iran as Mohammad Hassan Manteghi. In 1996, he established a travel agency, but took his clients’ money and fled, Iran’s police chief, General Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, told the country’s official IRNA news agency yesterday. Australia accepted him as a refugee around that time.
The police chief said Iran tried to extradite Monis in 2000, but Iran and Australia don’t have an extradition agreement.
New South Wales Attorney General Brad Hazzard said he had asked state and federal agencies to look into how Monis evaded authorities’ notice for so long.
“How did this offender not come to the attention of state and federal agencies for more urgent action?” he said.
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