Australia PM Says New Security Laws Failed Hostages

Tony Abbot orders investigation after it emerged café gunman had been free on bail.

Swati Pandey
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Australian PM Tony Abbott and his wife Margaret lay wreaths at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the fatal siege in Sydney, December 16, 2014.Credit: AFP
Swati Pandey

REUTERS - Tough new security laws and the bail system failed to prevent a deadly hostage crisis in the heart of Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday, as the country debated if and how similar attacks could be stopped in future.

Three people were killed, including hostage-taker Man Haron Monis, when heavily armed 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 the 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 new security laws in October aimed at preventing 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.

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 shotgun on a busy workday morning.

"The system did not adequately deal with this individual, there's no doubt about that," Abbott said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Abbott said authorities would investigate what had happened in the lead-up to Monday's siege, why Monis was not on any watchlist and how he got a gun.

Bail questioned

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," Andrew Scipione, the state's police commissioner, told reporters.

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 concerns about the bail system.

Greg Barns, a barrister and a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said 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 told Reuters.

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 don't come into force until late January.

Iranian warnings

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

"We have repeatedly communicated to the Australian government the hostage-taker's psychological and criminal background since he fled Iran two decades ago and sought refuge in Australia, and that country was fully aware of his identity," state-run IRINN TV news channel quoted spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying on Tuesday.

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 been useful in stopping 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.

On Wednesday, people were still laying flowers and signing condolence books in Martin Place, a pedestrian strip near the cafe, which is surrounded by blacked out fencing and a blue tent over the entrance door. Office workers were also queuing for coffee at a cart just a few yards away. 

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