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The man inside (part one)

Jul 13, 2020 • 19m 30s

When Ramzi Aouad went to prison for life, it was on the basis of evidence from one man - a violent enforcer who had been offered financial incentives for his testimony.

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The man inside (part one)

263 • Jul 13, 2020

The man inside (part one)

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

In the early 2000’s in Western Sydney a gang war was running between largely Lebanese families.

The response at the time was a significant moment in racialised policing.

In the middle of the story is one man, Ramzi Aouad, who is in prison for life on the basis of testimony that has been criticised as being financially induced.

This is part one of a two-part episode. Reporting in this episode is by Mahmood Fazal.

RUBY:

Mahmood how did you come to know Ramzi Aouad and tell his story?

MAHMOOD:

I actually met the brother of Ramzi's co-accused in Brisbane... He told me the story of three men in their 20s being convicted to life imprisonment, and we were talking about what life meant in Australia and he said no, no...

It's life. It’s life without parole, like they throw away the key.

RUBY:

Mahmood Fazal wrote about this case for The Monthly magazine.

MAHMOOD:

In our first phone conversation, my first impressions of Ramzi were of kind of young kid.

Archival tape --

This call is originating from the Longbay Metropolitan Special Programs Center.

Archival tape -- Mahmood

Ramzi, how are you…

Archival tape -- Ramzi:

Good, how are you?

Archival tape -- Mahmood:

Yeah good. Is it alright for you to call at this time?

Archival tape -- Ramzi:

Yeah...

MAHMOOD:

He sounded like he was still in his early 20s. But he's older than me in his mid 30s now. So I was quite surprised. And he seemed like he'd come to terms with what his life has now become.

Archival tape -- Ramzi:

I didn’t want it to affect me too much I think.

Archival tape -- Mahmood:

Because you were young too.

Archival tape -- Ramzi:

Yeah I was young, I think I took it as a joke at the time. Probably hit me hard when I got a bit older.

MAHMOOD:

We were speaking a lot about the things we took for granted as kids; running amok on the streets. In the same way all young Muslim men in the early 2000s were trying to make sense of the world outside their home, outside their communities. We were in many ways trying to find our place, trying to fit in.

Archival tape -- Ramzi:

I’ll call you every day, inshallah, that’s fine...

MAHMOOD:

The more I read about Ramzi's story, I couldn't help but feel as though our lives were only a few bad decisions apart. My parents moved to Victoria to flee the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ramzi's parents moved to New South Wales to flee the Lebanese civil war. We were both from the outer suburbs involved in crime. There were shootings. I'd lost several friends in their 20s to gun violence.

RUBY:

So, you felt this closeness, because of your similar experiences... You've been writing to Ramzi… He's been writing to you as well. Can you tell me a bit about what he’s said in his letters?

MAHMOOD:

Do you want me to read something out for you?

RUBY:

That would be great, yeah.

MAHMOOD:

And this was from the first letter he ever wrote to me. He writes, The first day of my sentence, I remember walking past the surrounding prison cells, all were numbered, ranging from 10 to 20 years. When I finally arrived at my cell, my door was not marked with any numbers or years. A life sentence never to be released, a death sentence.

RUBY:

Mahmood, let's go back to the beginning of all this. Can you tell me about what was happening with crime in western Sydney - in Punchbowl - in the early 2000s?

MAHMOOD:

Sure. I think it's best to set the scene a bit first. In the year 2000, the Skaf rape trials took place. They were highly publicized largely as a result of deliberate police leaks. Alan Jones described the attacks as Muslim rapes of Australian women before adding that they were the first signs of an Islamic hatred towards the community that welcomed them.

Archival tape -- Alan Jones

Well I tell you what kind of grubs this lot were, this lot were Middle Eastern grubs. You’re not allowed to say it but I’m saying it.

MAHMOOD:

The New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions said ethnicity was a motivating factor, even though the judge presiding in the first trial stressed that she'd seen no evidence of any racial element in these crimes.

Archival tape -- Alan Jones

It’s hard to believe that young men brought up in modern Australia could behave in such a fashion, like wild animals.

MAHMOOD:

And then you add to that the Tampa affair

Archival tape -- John Howard

But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

MAHMOOD:

September 11, the Bali bombings, and sudden suddenly we're all supposed to be surprised in the wake of these events when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission finds that two thirds of Muslim and Arab Australians are saying they've experienced racism and racial vilification.

So this was a time when Middle Eastern crime in Sydney's westrern suburbs really fueled the fears of the Australian imagination.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The violence has again erupted on streets of Punchbowl in Sydney’s Southwest with criminal gangs targeting police…

MAHMOOD:

The Telopea street boys were central to this campaign. They were running drugs, intercepting police radio networks, launching death threats towards patrolling officers, and issuing bomb threats to the Bankstown police station.

Archival tape -- reporter:

On one occasion there we had the Lakemba police station the victim of a drive-by shooting.

MAHMOOD:

So what the New South Wales police did was that they decided to introduce a new police tactic called zero-tolerance policing. The strategy involved a highly visible police presence, enforcing every facet of the law.

RUBY:

And what kind of effect did that have?

MAHMOOD:

Well, I think the footage of the police raids on Telopea street really says it all.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Police swept into the notorious Punchbowl street at dawn. Within minutes more than 200 officers were in place, two blocks entirely surrounded.

MAHMOOD:

They looked like something out of a military parade. You've got over 200 police officers sent to raid the street on three separate occasions. There were helicopters and officers literally marching up and down a street that's not even a kilometer long.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Over a thousand arrests, with massive drug and firearm closing down business for good.

MAHMOOD:

It was a total theater. Once the New South Wales police had dismantled the Telopea Street Boys, there was a vacuum in that kind of drug operation. And according to police documents, Adnan “Eddie” Darwich stepped in to fill that void.

RUBY:

OK. So there was this void created in the drug market. Can you tell me more about what happened next?

MAHMOOD:

So at the time, there were two major families in control of the drug run throughout western Sydney - the Darwiches and the Razzaks. Although when we refer to the Darwich and Razzak families, we should stress that obviously not everyone in the family was a criminal. It was just a banner representing the leaders of each gang.

Adnan Eddie Darwiche was the head of the Darwiche family. His right hand man, a key figure in this story is Khlaled Crazy Taleb. These two families the Darwiches and the Razzaks were vying for control of the streets. But they were held in an uneasy peace because Eddie Darwiche’s sister. Khadijie was married to Ali Abdul Razzak. And Ramzi, who I've been speaking to, was also married to the sister of a Razzak associate. So this is a tight knit, very small world of outcasts on the margins of a minority.

RUBY:

And so this uneasy peace between the Darwiches and Razzaks - how long did that hold for?

MAHMOOD:

Basically until marriages broke down and both sides started ripping off drug runners that worked for the opposing syndicate.

Tensions started to really break out in mid-2003, and there were a series of tit for tat attacks escalating in violence.

The tipping point was the shooting of Khaled Crazy Taleb. Who was Adnan Darwiches’ right hand man. And he was kneecapped in Bankstown. As a response to that the shootings really started escalating in scale.

We're talking hundreds of shots from semi-automatic assault rifles in the suburbs. This culminates in the murder of Ali Abdul Razzak, who was shot and killed as he sat in his car after his Friday prayers near the Lakemba mosque.

Word in the western suburbs quickly began to circulate that Eddie Darwiche was responsible for the murder.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mahmood, we're talking about this power struggle between two families in western Sydney. Eddie Darwich, who is the head of one family, was accused of killing a senior figure in the Razzak family. What happened after that?

MAHMOOD:

There were a series of drive-by shootings in retaliation. Ramzi's Aouad house was shot up on the same night Khaled Taleb’s sister's home was also peppered with bullets. Eddie Darwiche orchestrated a plan to get even and essentially end the war.

According to court documents, sources and police statements, Eddie Darwiche called the shots and Khaled crazy Taleb organized the ammunition.

Archival tape -- reporter:

They’re not using simply just pistols or knives. We’re talking about high powered weaponry, high powered military rifles, to the extent they even considered using rocket launchers. So we’ve gone an extra level up.

MAHMOOD:

They had a rocket launcher, semiautomatic assault rifles and a number of automatic handguns.

Now, according to Taleb’s testimony, he was excused from joining the actual shooting because he hadn't fully recovered from his own kneecapping. Everyone else within the syndicate, Ramzi, Nassim El-Sayed and Abbas Osman were expected to be involved.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The planning for the murder at Lawford street, Greenacre, was fairly meticulous. Specific weapons were handed to individuals, some had favourite weapons...

MAHMOOD:

The Darwiche crew, without Taleb, allegedly drove to a house on Lawford Street where some of the Razzak gang were hiding out.

Archival tape -- reporter:

It was 2.45am the 14th of October 2003. The dead of the night…

MAHMOOD:

At three a.m.. Fifty five shots tore through the front wall of the Lawford Street home.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Just total indiscriminate shooting - they had no sight of the intended victims or the targets.

MAHMOOD:

Ziad Razzak died after being showered in a hail of bullets.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Ambulance officers try in vain to save 24 year old Ziad Razzak shot in the head and legs when the barrage of bullets ripped through this fibro house in Lawford street...

MAHMOOD:

Mirvak Nemra, whose husband had offered their home to the Razzaks, suffered a gunshot wound to the neck and died in his arms.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Police have little doubt who was responsible.
An ongoing feud between two families that has resulted in the last few weeks in several shootings, stabbings and other serious violent crimes…

RUBY:

And so this is what’s known as, as the Lawford Street shootings?

MAHMOOD:

Yes.

RUBY:

You're describing multiple shootings and there are others that we also haven't talked about. What was the broader reaction at the time to what was happening in Western Sydney?

MAHMOOD:

Well, it starts to get really political. There's a sustained demonization of Lebanese people in the press

Archival tape -- reporter:

Let me just cut to the chase here, in terms of the media coverage and the way politicians are playing this: is the problem Middle Eastern gangs in your view? Is that the way you see it as a politician?

MAHMOOD:

And the daily tabloids made the public feel like the Lebanese civil war was at their doorstep.

Archival tape -- reporter:

And the Middle Eastern criminal is a very irrational criminal. Nothing seems to make too much sense when they have a fight. They fight and kill over issues normal people wouldn’t even be concerned about.

MAHMOOD:

The front page of The Daily Telegraph the day after the shootings read “How dare you do this to our city?”

In The Sydney Morning Herald, then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr told reporters that those responsible should “ship out of Australia” before issuing a blunt warning that “we're not going to see our civilization dragged back to medieval standards of revenge cycles”.

RUBY:

Ok. And what was the police response?

MAHMOOD:

Well, detective Bob Inkster was told to put together a task force to address violent crime in the south western suburbs of Sydney. His briefing was followed by a highly protected report prepared in which a recommendation was made to establish a dedicated investigative response to the, quote, unquote, Middle Eastern organised crime problem.

They set up task force gain, which later led to the formation of the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. At first, the MILK squad had the logo of a wood wasp, the natural enemy of the cedar tree, a symbol from the Lebanese flag. After a complaint, they changed it to a mullet, a popular haircut among young Middle Easterners in Sydney's western suburbs, being snipped off with a pair of scissors.

RUBY:

Hmm.

MAHMOOD:

Yeah, it was a very strange decision on their part.

Former Assistant Police Commissioner Ken McKay, known within the force as Slasher, was instrumental in setting up the squad

Archival tape -- reporter:

So Ken, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Archival tape -- Ken McKay

I’m a retired assistant commissioner of police. I had the majority of my career in organised crime.

MAHMOOD:

On crime in the western suburbs, he told me their behavior goes way back to old tribalism.

Archival tape -- Ken McKay

No, there's no sense that any attempt of integration into the norms of our society, the traditional norms.

MAHMOOD:

When I asked him to address the sociological reasons someone may turn to crime, McKay said.

Archival tape -- Ken McKay

… sociological reasons…
Oh someone else’s fault you mean? You know you just can’t cop that any longer.

MAHMOOD:

You mean he calls it the “ace of race”. They're not a group of downtrodden new arrivals into the country. They're born here.

Archival tape -- Ken McKay

They have all the opportunity. They have all the welfare that money can throw at them. It's just their way of thinking...

RUBY:

So while this police response was underway, what was going on with the Darwiches after that Lawford Street shooting?

MAHMOOD:

So a few days after the Lawford street shooting, Eddie Darwiche and Taleb met in a park. In the western suburbs, gangsters would meet in parks to sort out their differences, and they'd often end in a fight or a shooting.

At the time, Eddie suspected Taleb working with police and wearing a wire. Taleb, knowing that he was being pressed and interrogated, admitted to committing all the crimes just to get Eddie off his back. But just as he was doing that, the police drove by and Eddie asked them all to disperse and go back to his place. And the next day, Taleb fled to Melbourne and then booked a flight to Beirut.

About a month later, the police arrested Eddie Darwiche. A week after that, Ramzi, the man I've been speaking with in prison, was also arrested.

RUBY:

And did the shootings stop?

MAHMOOD:

No, they didn't. The Razzak’s shot Eddie Darwiche’s younger brother and nine years later Eddie’s older brother, Abdul, was murdered in broad daylight at a petrol station.

I think once a life is lost, it's very difficult to find peace - because the meaning of justice is no longer rational, it's personal.

But I think this story is interesting for that reason, because it forces us to ask why the New South Wales government took these crimes so personally.

RUBY:

Some tape in this episode has been drawn from the podcast No Gangsters In Paradise from Audible Australia.

In tomorrow’s episode - the inducements and indemnities police used when building their case.

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RUBY:

Also in the news —

The Victorian Government has confirmed students from prep to year 10 in Melbourne will return to remote learning from July 20, until the end of the six week lockdown.

There are currently 1,484 recorded active cases of coronavirus in Victoria... 57 of those people are in hospital, including 16 people in intensive care.

Meanwhile the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said NSW is on high alert and the next two to three weeks are "absolutely critical" for the state.

The Premier has also announced that people flying into NSW from overseas will have to pay $3000 for their two-week stint in hotel quarantine, as of midnight on the 18th of July.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

When Ramzi Aouad went to prison for life, it was on the basis of evidence from one man - a violent enforcer who had been offered financial incentives for his testimony. The conviction was part of a signal moment in racialised policing. This is part one of a two-part episode.

Guest: Contributor to The Monthly Mahmood Fazal.

Background reading:

The man inside and the inside man in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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263: The man inside (part one)