As Australia mourns siege victims, prime minister launches inquiry

As Australia mourns siege victims, prime minister launches inquiry
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Dec. 17. (Lukas Coch / European Pressphoto Agency)

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Wednesday for an investigation to determine how self-proclaimed Muslim cleric Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant with a long and volatile history, slipped through the cracks of the nation's law enforcement system and was able to carry out a deadly siege in Sydney.

"We do need to know why the perpetrator got permanent residency. We do need to know how he could have been on welfare for so many years," Abbott said. "We do need to know why he seems to have fallen off our security agencies' watch list back in about 2009."


Abbott said there was "incredulity" among members of his Cabinet's National Security Committee on Tuesday after they were briefed on Monis' background and history in Australia.

Monis had numerous encounters with law enforcement, having been found guilty of sending offensive letters to families of Australian soldiers, accused of numerous sexual assaults, and charged as an accessory to the 2013 slaying of his ex-wife.

As the nation awaited answers about the siege in a Sydney cafe that left Monis and two hostages dead early Tuesday, experts said the incident exposed deep-rooted bureaucratic dysfunctionality.

"It sounds likes it's a catastrophic failure of the whole system," Tony Shepherd, political editor of the Australian newspaper the Advertiser, told the Australia Broadcasting Corp.

Former Liberal Party advisor David Miles questioned whether Australian security agencies had been provided adequate resources to track offenders such as Monis.

There was significant confusion Wednesday about whether Monis had a gun license; Abbott said Monis was indeed in possession of such a permit, but other authorities later said that was not the case.

Monis was reportedly armed with a sawed-off shotgun during the siege.

In Australia, an individual applying for a firearms license must be able to provide a "genuine reason" -- such as recreational hunting or a rural occupation -- for possessing and using a firearm.

"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.

Court documents revealed that in 2011, Monis and his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, had an argument outside a car in the western Sydney suburb of Green Valley. Her parents were inside the vehicle as the argument erupted.

Pal told a court in in January 2012: "I decided to walk back to the car [and] that's when [Monis] said to me, he goes ... 'I will make you pay, even if I have to shoot you.'"

Pal told prosecutors she was "very scared." Asked by prosecutors what she feared, Pal answered: "Of that fact that he could do it ... at one point in our relationship, he did tell me that he did hold a gun license."

A week after that incident, Monis said in a police interview that he had access to firearms in the past but that he did not have a current firearms license.

Police in New South Wales state, which includes Sydney, said Wednesday that they had checked their records and that Monis did not possess a firearms license. But the prime minister's office later issued a statement at odds with that assertion:


"During national security briefings, Commonwealth security officials informed the prime minister that the National Police Reference System [a database of all state and territory police records] indicated that the perpetrator of the Martin Place siege had been a recorded firearms license holder" in New South Wales.

The Australian Federal Police Commissioner, the statement added, was investigating.

The exact motivation for the siege remained unclear Wednesday. The ex-husband of one hostage told Australia's Daily Mail that Monis shot cafe manager Tori Johnson to death after Johnson attempted to take his gun away as Monis drifted off to sleep around 2 a.m.

As the public awaited more answers about the events inside the cafe during the siege, locals continued to bring flowers to a makeshift shrine near the eatery in the heart of the city. On Wednesday, Johnson's father, Ken Johnson, arrived bearing sunflowers.

Frederic Brohez, the general manager of the InterContinental Sydney Double Bay Hotel, where Johnson's partner, Thomas Zinn, works, expressed his sorrow.

"Many of us have had the privilege of knowing Tori and spending time with him," Brohez said. "He was an outstanding young man and he will undoubtedly be missed by all. Our heartfelt condolences are with the families and loved ones of this tragedy."

Booth is a special correspondent. Staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.