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Australians mourn siege victims, ask why gunman was free on bail

Australian authorities treat hostage investigation as national security matter

As the investigation into Sydney’s deadly hostage siege continued Tuesday, thousands of Australians paid tribute to the victims, pouring out their grief and laying flowers near the scene of the crime at a busy downtown pedestrian thoroughfare.

Initial reports suggested that the gunman, an Iranian-born  self-declared Muslim cleric named Man Haron Monis, acted as a lone wolf, and he died in the siege along with two hostages. But authorities were closely holding details of the probe and treating it as a national security matter.

As Australians were asking why Monis, who had numerous run-ins with the law and was charged with being an accessory to the 2013 killing of his ex-wife, was out on bail, police on Tuesday spent three hours at the home of Monis’ ex-partner, Amirah Droudis. Droudis, who stands accused in the slaying as well, also has been free on bail.

Neither Monis nor Droudis have been tried in the death of Noleen Hayson Pal, 30, who was burned and stabbed to death in April 2013. It was unclear what police were searching for on Tuesday at Droudis’ home in the western Sydney neighborhood of Belmore.

Australian journalist and lawyer Richard Ackland, a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper, asked: "Why was such a person outside the walls of a prison? How come he fell through the cracks in the criminal justice system? Why wasn’t the security apparatus more vigilant?” Iranian journalist Sadegh Ghorbani said Tuesday that Iranian officials had repeatedly warned Australian authorities about Monis’ "mental condition."

Legal experts said Monis had been able to plead special circumstances to secure his release on bail. Changes to the New South Wales state Bail Act that came into effect in May would have made it tougher -- though not impossible -- for a person in his circumstances to receive bail. Further changes are to come into force next year.

New South Wales Atty. Gen. Brad Hazzard said in a statement that had all the amendments been in effect, the new bail law would have ensured Monis had been in custody. 

"This government changed the Bail Act to ensure greater safety for our community. It was changed to ensure that offenders involved in serious crime will not get bail," he said Tuesday. 

But Sydney-based criminal defense lawyer Michael Coroneos, whose law firm partner Adam Houda represented Monis in another case -- Monis’ sending of offensive letters to families of Australian soldiers -- said the situation was more complicated than Hazzard suggested.

"Generally speaking, it would have been harder for him to get bail, but not impossible," Coroneos said in an interview.   

"Under the previous Bail Act, the main focus was the offense, and the seriousness of the offense,” Coroneos explained. “Under the new Bail Act, the focus was then placed onto the offender himself ... [whether] as a matter of fact, there was an unacceptable risk of the person reoffending.”

A number of observers, including members of Pal's family, have criticized Australian authorities for granting Monis' bail. Coroneos said that was understandable “but the reality of the situation is that the law in this country -- as it is in [the U.S.] -- is that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”

“Bail is not a means to punish a person, it is a means to ensure that the person appears in court and doesn't commit further offences. No one can ever guarantee that; we don't know the state of the man's health and he may well have had a specifically diagnosed medical condition, and it is obviously a very desperate step that he has taken,” the lawyer added. “But there is no law here of what is called ‘preventative detention,’ which is what the media is effectively saying -- that this person should have been locked up as a means of preventative detention.” 

Near the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney where Monis took his hostages, mourners including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, New South Wales Premier Mike Baid and thousands of ordinary Australians came to pay tribute, leaving flowers and cards.

"Australians awoke to the news this morning that the siege in Martin Place has ended," Abbott said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the two deceased hostages, the wounded and the other hostages. I commend the courage and professionalism of the New South Wales Police and other emergency services involved."

At least 17 people were caught up in the hostage-taking. Those killed were Katrina Dawson, 38, a lawyer and mother of three small children, and Tori Johnson, 34, the cafe manager. 

"We are so proud of our beautiful boy Tori, gone from this earth but forever in our memories as the most amazing life partner, son and brother we could ever wish for," Johnson’s family said in a statement, thanking police, armed forces and paramedics for the efforts to end the incident peacefully.

"We feel heartfelt sorrow for the family of Katrina Dawson,” the family added. “We'd like to thank not only our friends and loved ones for their support, but the people of Sydney, Australia and those around the world for reaching out with their thoughts and prayers.” 

Authorities admonished the surviving hostages not to publicly discuss details of what Monis said or did in the cafe during the siege.

But Ji-eun Bae, who worked at the eatery and fled along with four others after being held for eight hours, told the Special Broadcasting Service of Australia that another cafe worker, Elley Chen, had encouraged her to run away when the opportunity arose. Chen fled the scene seconds behind Bae around 5 p.m. Monday.

Bae said that throughout the ordeal, she was determined not to die. Expressing grief over Johnson’s death, she said she "can't believe he's gone." 

In addition to Bae and Chen, the Sydney Morning Herald identified the 13 survivors as other cafe employees, an 83-year-old man, a 75-year-old woman, and several lawyers and professionals from a nearby office building. Several remained hospitalized as of Tuesday evening, including three women who sustained gunshot wounds.

Booth is a special correspondent. Booth reported from Sydney and staff writer Makinen from Beijing. 

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:50 a.m.: This article has been updated to add comments from Australian journalist and lawyer Richard Ackland.

This article was originally published at 2:55 a.m.

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