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State and federal inquiries are under way. But is there sufficient independence to assess potential shortcomings at the policing, intelligence or political levels? By Mike Seccombe.

Inside the Sydney siege

An escaped hostage runs to armed tactical response police officers from the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
Credit: AP

The way it is stated, the task of the coronial inquiry into the Lindt cafe siege is deceptively simple.

One, examine the circumstances of the deaths last December 16 of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson after they and a dozen-and-a-half people were taken hostage by Man Haron Monis. Two, determine whether the deaths, as well as that of Monis, could have been avoided.

The first part of that task, establishing the circumstances of the Lindt cafe siege and its tragic end, will be pretty straightforward, if painstaking. The second part, incredibly difficult.

Probably no killings in Australian history have been as comprehensively documented as these – on broadcast and closed circuit television, in phone recordings, in mainstream and social media, in eyewitness accounts, in acres of reportage. Certainly none has been as instantaneously accessible to the public.

We saw live pictures of the frightened hostages holding the black flag up against the cafe windows. We saw the terror on the faces of the fortunate handful who managed to escape. We witnessed the police storming the building and heard the explosions, all in real time.

When counsel assisting the inquest, Jeremy Gormly, SC, began his opening address on Thursday morning, reciting the sequence of events that day, it served more to elaborate than to correct the public understanding, It was chilling nonetheless.

Monis entered the cafe at 8.33am, on December 15. He was wearing a large black backpack and carrying a blue plastic bag. Concealed with him was a sawn-off pump-action shotgun.

He sat and ordered a piece of chocolate cake and tea, which he ate and drank before asking to move to a table where he was able view the whole cafe.

About 30 minutes after entering he asked to speak to the manager, Tori Johnson, who sat with him and who, according to other staff, appeared stressed by what he was hearing. Johnson then asked another member of staff to lock the doors. Monis stood, put on a vest and produced his gun. He ordered the hostages to hold up the flag at the window, and at 9.44am ordered Johnson to call 000.

“He was told by Mr Monis what to say, and that was, in effect, that Australia is under attack by Islamic State and there are a number of radio-controlled bombs situated in Martin Place, Circular Quay and George Street,” Gormly said.

This was, we now know, false. But the circumstances – the bomb threat, the Islamic flag and Johnson’s information that he and others were being held at gunpoint – led police to treat the incident from the outset as a terrorist attack.

Johnson’s phone call lasted 12 minutes. The first police were on the scene even before it had ended. Tactical response officers arrived by 10.07.

Monis told hostages he had a bomb in his backpack, and did not remove the backpack at any time. He discharged five shots during the siege. The first hit a door above an entry to the cafe after some hostages fled, Gormly said.

The second time Monis discharged his gun was about 2.14am, when he shot Tori Johnson. The cafe manager was ordered to kneel and then shot in the back of the head from a distance of about 75 centimetres. He died instantly. The murder was seen by a police marksman and tactical response police entered the cafe within “a matter of seconds”.

The police detonated 11 “flash bang” distractors, each of which emitted nine noises and flashes of light. Two officers fired a total of 22 shots.

Monis shot back at police, and was apparently in the process of reloading when he was killed.

“No shot fired by Mr Monis other than the one that killed Mr Tori Johnson struck anyone,” Gormly said.

Katrina Dawson was struck by six police bullets, or fragments of bullets, one of which severed a major artery. She died quickly. One police officer and three other hostages were struck by bullets or bullet fragments. All are recovering.

Gormly stressed that nothing he recounted should be viewed as formal evidence or coronial findings, and not all the evidence is yet available. It is for the coroner, Michael Barnes, to make findings.

Independence of inquiries questioned

The issue of how events unfolded in the siege is pretty straightforward. The question of why they happened is another, far more complex matter, and even before the inquest began there were those who asked whether it would ever get the whole truth.

New South Wales MP and Greens party justice spokesperson David Shoebridge is one such critic.

“The NSW police critical incident review of the Lindt cafe siege will form the brief of evidence for the coronial inquiry, but the problem is that review is anything but independent,” he says.

He complains that the review is headed by a senior homicide detective, “who is under the command of the very senior officers whose judgement calls and decisions need to be assessed”.

“These decisions included not taking ‘deliberate action’ to bring the siege to an end, but rather to wait for a crisis to develop and then react, together with the rejection of offers of Commonwealth counterterrorism assistance,” Shoebridge says

Possibly anticipating such criticism, counsel assisting made a point during his opening address of stressing the past independence of the investigating team leader, Detective Inspector Angelo Memmolo. He also said the coroner had commissioned an independent analysis from British and Australian interstate experts in terrorism responses, to assess the methods employed during the siege.

Tracking Monis

But another concern about the inquest process goes to jurisdictional issues.

George Williams, AO, law professor at University of New South Wales, says there is a potential problem in state agencies not being given to compel evidence from federal officials who have certain immunities.

“Also, some of these matters might be problematic in areas of national security where secrecy laws can apply,” he says. “And of course one of the issues here is the role of our intelligence agencies.”

Those who have followed the reporting over the days and weeks since the siege will know what Williams is getting at. Long before he entered the Lindt cafe, red flags were fluttering over Man Haron Monis.

He came to Australia from Iran via Malaysia in 1996. According to the Iranians, Australian authorities were informed from the beginning that Monis was a criminal who fled the country after committing a major fraud. They say they sought his extradition but were denied.

Monis told quite a different story. In 2001, he told ABC radio that he had left Iran under threat of execution, and that he had secret information about Iranian links to international terrorism. That year he also chained himself outside NSW parliament.

In 2007, he began sending harassing letters to the families of Australian soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. In October 2009, he was arrested and charged with using the postal service to menace, harass or cause offence. He could have been jailed for up to two years, but escaped with a good-behaviour bond.

Sheikh Haron, as he was then identified, appealed on the basis that the law was unconstitutional because it limited his right to freedom of speech. In December 2011, he went to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney, which dismissed his case, and the matter ultimately went to the High Court in February 2013, which split 3–3, meaning the lower court decision stood. Monis made a final appeal against his conviction, which was dismissed by the High Court on December 12, 2014, three days before the Lindt cafe siege.

There were other warning signs, too. Monis maintained a radical Islamist website and members of the Iranian community had passed on concerns about his behaviour. He had been charged as an accessory to the murder of his wife.

At the time of his death, he was facing some 50 counts of sexual assault.

He was reportedly on a terrorism watch list until 2009, but then dropped off, despite the fact that it was increasingly apparent he was a dangerous man.

Overlapping inquiries

The big question is how thoroughly the inquest will be able to investigate the apparent failure of various parties – the police and security agencies, the courts, the politicians and immigration bureaucrats – to recognise the danger he posed.

There are several other inquiries now in train, involving the NSW police, the federal police and ASIO, and a joint inquiry announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The joint federal–state investigation is due to be complete within days, and Gormly said the inquest will have access to it. He said the inquest will address Monis’s mental health, associations, political activity, religious claims, criminal history, record of public activity, media profile, history of litigation, and personal and family relationships.

But it is not clear that it will go to the involvement of ASIO, which may the most important issue of all.

Williams says the possibility of matters of national security being involved means there may be reluctance to fully co-operate with a variety of overlapping inquiries. He argues that a royal commission might have been a better option.

“That’s often what you need where you have an issue that goes across jurisdictions and you need a very sharp focus,” Williams says.

“It’s too early to form any judgements, of course, but potentially we will look back and say it would perhaps have been better to have one holistic inquiry rather than the proliferation of them that we’ve had.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Inside the siege". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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