ONE day in February, a small, lean man sat down in court to watch the Benbrika terror trial. He was quickly bundled out by security guards and charged with contempt of court over what he was wearing: a T-shirt emblazoned on the back with the scornful words “Izzy is a rat”.
They were four words the jury could not be permitted to see.
“Izzy” is Izzydeen Atik, originally the 13th man in the group run by the Muslim sheikh who is now a convicted terrorist, Abdul Nacer Benbrika.
Atik had broken ranks with the other 12. Last year he pleaded guilty to charges of intentionally having been a member of, and providing resources to, a terrorist organisation.
His pleas could be interpreted as answering the central question the Benbrika jury had to decide: whether there was a terrorist organisation.
Atik also told police he would help them prosecute the other 12 men. In August 2007, Justice Bernard Bongiorno sentenced him to 51/2 years’ jail.
Atik was expected to – and later did – give evidence in the Benbrika trial as a key Crown witness against his former comrades; hence, “the rat”. Atik was the only witness who testified that Benbrika had discussed specific targets for a terror attack, such as the 2005 AFL grand final.
But the jury was not told he had pleaded guilty to terror charges for fear it would prejudice a fair hearing for the other defendants. That T-shirt was letting a cat out of the legal bag. Luckily for its wearer, he was removed from court before the jury entered.
Yesterday the last two men on trial with Benbrika received their verdicts. A Supreme Court jury found Amer Haddara, 28, of Yarraville, guilty of being a member of a terrorist organisation but not guilty of being in possession of a computer that he knew was connected with a terrorist act.
The jury could not reach a verdict on whether Shane Kent, 31, of Meadow Heights, had been a member of the organisation.
Atik’s fate might foreshadow that of Haddara and the other six men, including Benbrika, who were convicted on Monday. The arguments raised at Atik’s plea hearing show the kind of issues Justice Bongiorno might consider in sentencing them.
Prosecutors conceded that Atik was never part of the group’s inner circle. Benbrika saw him as a wild card. Atik had certainly long been a troubled young man seeking relief from the suffering of what was later diagnosed as mental illness. But in his search for comfort in Allah, he found Benbrika. It led him not to tranquillity but to jail.
Atik was born in Australia in 1980 to Lebanese migrant Muslim parents, the fourth of eight children. His parents had been farmers and had little English when they arrived. The family settled in western Sydney.
Atik felt uncomfortable around people from an early age, which a forensic psychiatrist later said might have signalled the beginnings of his schizophrenia. He suffered bullying, got into fights at school and was expelled twice. About the time he left school for the last time at 15, his mother took him to see a Muslim sheikh who said his mental problems should not be disclosed publicly or he might be institutionalised. He was given a special pendant to wear at all times to help with his symptoms.
“Nonetheless, his symptoms persisted,” his lawyer, Michael O’Connell, said at his plea hearing.
Atik married in 1997 and had a child in 2000, but the marriage was not happy. He began gambling and using cannabis and was unfaithful. The couple divorced.
While serving a jail sentence in NSW for deception offences in 2002, Atik reported hearing the voices of angels and a man named “Andrew” in his head and was diagnosed with florid paranoid schizophrenia. He was also found to have an IQ of 61, lower than 99% of the population.
His lawyer later argued that Benbrika’s manipulative power over him was heightened because of his low IQ and mental illness. But at Benbrika’s trial, Benbrika’s lawyer suggested Atik had faked the symptoms to get more sympathetic treatment from the NSW court. Atik denied this.
In 2002 Atik went to Melbourne to be near his child. He became close to a cousin who was religious. At Atik’s plea hearing, Mr O’Connell told Justice Bongiorno that Atik had found his cousin’s influence stabilising, and that the practice of religion had provided comfort and given order to his life. “The smallest detail about the religion, the ritual to be observed and the like, was very important for him.”
In 2003 Atik and his cousin went on a pilgrimage to Mecca together. Mr O’Connell said: “The experience of the pilgrimage was an extraordinary one for him. He felt as if he had been given a new lease on life and he resolved to avoid getting into trouble and to take his medication as directed by a local doctor.”
In March 2004, when he was 24, he met one of Benbrika’s followers, Aimen Joud, through mutual friends. Joud invited him to attend one of Benbrika’s religious classes. Atik was told that Benbrika was a different kind of sheikh whom he could trust and who spoke the truth.
Atik was associated with Benbrika’s group from late 2004, but the Crown said he was a knowing member – knowing that the group was helping prepare or foster a terrorist act in the pursuit of violent jihad – only from March to November 2005.
On December 1, 2004, Atik was secretly recorded trying to give Benbrika a bayat, or pledge of loyalty. Benbrika refused to accept it because Atik had failed to comply with some of his orders. “You think too much for yourself,” he told Atik.
Atik became the group’s “travel agent”. He used stolen credit card numbers to fraudulently obtain airline tickets, which were used by three members of the group to travel to Sydney in July that year. He also arranged six other trips and organised meetings between members of the group and contacts in Sydney.
He would later say Joud convinced him to become involved in the credit card fraud by arguing that non-Muslims were killing innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it was “lawful” under Islam to take their blood and wealth.
Justice Bongiorno told the jurors in the Benbrika trial that it would be extremely dangerous to convict on Atik’s evidence alone because he was a conman, a liar and a social security fraudster.
The judge said Atik had used credit card fraud to pay $500 a week for a butler and to rent a house in Williamstown while he was on a pension and had a carer who also received benefits.
Atik was caught by police for his fraud. It frightened him and led him to fret over what would happen if police knew of his association with the Benbrika group. He told Benbrika he was worried that if one member “does something, we’ll all go down . . . we have to keep away from each other”.
Atik said he was scared that police would say he was supporting terrorists. Benbrika told him to prepare his mind. Later, Benbrika said: “It’s not something small . . . We’ll damage building – blast things.”
But Benbrika also told him it was very difficult to get “product . . . after 11 September”.
Atik was arrested in Sydney in November 2005 and extradited to Melbourne to face terror charges. Nineteen months later, Atik changed his plea to guilty.
He told the court in pre-trial hearings last August that when he decided to plead guilty he asked a prison governor to put him in touch with police and to put him in protection, away from the others. He said he told his solicitors that “I believe the group is an extremist group and I’ve had enough and I want to get away from them . . . I’ve pretty much seen the light”.
He denied that he agreed to give evidence in order to get a reduction of his sentence.
At the trial of the rest of the group, he said Benbrika had told him of a plot to attack the 2005 AFL grand final at the MCG. He said the attack had to be put off until the following year because of funding problems and raids by police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
“The next targets were the NAB Cup and the Crown Casino building at the Grand Prix weekend (in 2006),” he said.
He said Joud had asked him to get at least 10 firearms, either handguns or semi-automatic weapons, as well as explosives, but he did not obtain them.
He said another accused, Bassam Raad, had suggested he wanted to become a suicide bomber and was waiting for Benbrika’s command to send him off. Bassam Raad was this week acquitted on all charges by the jury.
At his plea hearing last August, Atik’s lawyers argued that his penalty should be lighter because of his mental disabilities and because he would provide confirmation of the prosecution’s otherwise circumstantial case in the Benbrika trial.
But prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, argued for a substantial sentence. He warned the judge that terrorist bombings such as those in Madrid and London had been committed “by people who might have looked like no-hopers to any observer, and perhaps (were) not even taken terribly seriously in the Madrid case until they perpetrated the act, and scores, hundreds and even thousands of innocent people can be killed or maimed in a single random attack by such people.”
In his sentencing remarks, Justice Bongiorno said forensic psychiatrist Dr Lester Walton had found Atik’s psychosis would probably have impaired his capacity to plan, make decisions and understand the consequences of certain actions. Dr Walton suspected Atik would qualify as intellectually disabled.
The judge said: “That these conditions were long-existing and clearly genuine is a necessary inference (given the) . . . evidence of covertly intercepted conversations in which Atik spoke of his auditory hallucinations . . . in terms of ‘Andrew’ and angels who spoke to him and gave him directions.”
Justice Bongiorno concluded that Atik’s reduced capacities made him vulnerable to recruitment, reduced his moral culpability and would make jail harder for him. The judge said any penalty also had to take into account the significant help Atik gave to police in regard to the Benbrika case and another case in Sydney.
He said if Atik had not turned informer, it would have been proper to jail him for 71/2 years. Given Atik’s co-operation with authorities, he sentenced him to 51/2 years with a minimum of four years and six weeks.
And the wearer of that “Izzy the rat” T-shirt in court at the Benbrika trial? He turned out to be Ahmed Merhi, a brother of the youngest terror defendant, Abdullah Merhi. His joke cost him dearly. He lost his job as a guard at the Melbourne Custody Centre.
Bongiorno told him his actions could have aborted the trial and that, if he had not pleaded guilty to contempt, he would have been sentenced to jail. He was reprimanded and discharged.
And that T-shirt? It was forfeited to the Crown and placed in police custody – a last, mute casualty of Australia’s biggest terror trial.
First published in The Age.