Man Haron Monis was an Iranian refugee who came to Australia to be a Shia Muslim cleric, heal people and expose the injustices of the Iranian regime while extolling the virtues of the West. So goes one version of the events leading up to the Monday siege of a Sydney cafe that left Monis and two of the 17 hostages he took dead. But a number of alternative takes on just who Monis was have emerged in recent days, with even high-profile figures and organizations are questioning the official narrative. From the Iranian government to senior members of Australia’s Shia Muslim community, there has long been a deep undercurrent among some camps of skepticism about Monis' story as it has been portrayed in the media.
Their assertion is that Monis, whose given name is Mohammad-Hassan Manteghi, was little more than an opportunistic fraud who had assumed a number of different roles in hopes of avoiding extradition to Iran since 1996. That year, Australia took Monis in as a refugee, granting him political asylum on the basis of his claims that the government would execute him if he stayed there, which he laid out in a 2001 interview with Australia’s ABC Radio National.
“Yes, more than four years I have not seen my family, and the Iranian regime doesn't let them come out,” he said. “In fact I can say they are hostage; as a hostage the Iranian regime wants to make me silent, because I have some secret information about government, and about their terrorist operations in the war. I sent a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and somebody on behalf of Mr. Kofi Anan sent the answer, and they want to do something.”
Monis claimed that he worked with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security before leaving the country in fear for his life, and was on the 19th day of a protest “to show to people of Australia that the Iranian regime is against human rights” when the 2001 interview was conducted. He also said he was gathering signatures for a petition calling on the Australian government to ask the Iranian government to “free” his family.
But Iranian authorities see his actions during this time as nothing more than the desperate attempts of a fugitive looking to avoid culpability for past crimes. They have been ringing alarm bells about Monis since 1995, when they allege that he committed a fraud in connection with a Tehran-based tourism agency where he served as managing director in 1995.
A source who worked with Monis at the tourism business told London-based Persian-language news outlet Manoto 1 this week that he stole a total of $200,000 from about 50 customers before fleeing to Australia in 1996. The Iranian government went on to request that Monis be returned to his home country to face fraud charges, and the nation’s Interpol police force sent out an alert on the topic, Manoto 1 reported citing records.
Iran’s Chief of Police Brig. Gen. Esmail Ahmadi Moqadam addressed the fraud investigation and Iranian authorities’ contacts with the Australian government on Monday, according to the Mehr News Agency in Tehran. “It lasted four years to collect evidence on Manteqi’s identification documents and we reported this to the Australian police, but since Australia has no extradition treaty with Iran, they didn’t extradite him to Iran,” Moqadam said.
In its investigations into Morin, the Iranian government had also uncovered what it considered evidence of mental instability, which it relayed to Australian officials along with the details of Morin’s criminal history nearly 20 years ago, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency this week. But the Australian government declined to return Morin to Iran, and he continued to live in Australia, where he presented himself as a Shia cleric, wearing clerical garb and issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, and even answering to the lofty title of ayatollah.
Monis’ assuming the role of a Shia cleric did not sit well with Sheik Kamal Mousselmani, Australia’s senior Shia leader and the head of its Supreme Islamic Shia Council of Australia, who called on the Australian government to investigate the Iranian refugee in January 2008.
"From the way he writes his [fatwas], I don't think he is Shia Muslim," Sheik Mousselmani told the Australian at the time. "And there are no ayatollahs in Australia. We don't follow, we don't support and we don't stand with anyone we don't know. He's not one of us."
Ikebal Patel, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, made similar allegations a month earlier. “We're carrying out an extensive investigation into the sheik and I don't think he exists," Patel told the Australian. "I went to all community leaders ... and nobody knows anything about him."
By the time Mousselmani, the federation’s investigation had yet to bear any fruit; Morin simply was not a real Shia leader, Patel concluded. "I know the community very well, and this just doesn't make sense," he told the Australian. "We couldn't find anything on the man."
Patel’s calls for an investigation came as news emerged that Monis had sent insulting letters to the families of Australian troops, for which he was eventually sentenced to 300 hours of community service and put on a two-year “good behavior bond,” a sentence much like what Americans call probation, Australian Associated Press reported.
The Australian Shia Muslim community continued to attempt to distance itself from Monis over the coming years, as he continued to be charged with crimes in Australia. On April 21, 2013, Monis was charged as an accessory to the brutal murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, on in a Sydney suburb, though he was released by the magistrate on a conditional $10,000 bail, Australia’s the Age reported. Earlier this year, he was charged with more than 40 sexual offenses that he allegedly committed against women who came to him for “spiritual healing sessions” he advertised in local newspapers, according to the Age.
And though he was occasionally held up as something of a lowbrow free-speech hero for the left, many pundits instead saw him as “given to extreme attention-seeking behavior,” a man who “claimed to be a liberal,” as ABC Radio National’s Rachael Kohn wrote in a 2009 piece calling on him to be convicted for his offensive letter-writing campaign.
Users of ShiaChat.com, the self-described “largest Shia community online since 1998,” were calling for a closer look at Monis as far back as 2008. “Alot has been heard about a character called sheikh haron, this so called sheikh keeps issueing stupid fatwas and creating hatred for muslims,” one user wrote in a Dec. 14, 2008 post. “The sheikh is fake, the girls in the youtube videos who all share the same black burqa are not muslims, they are just some australian [edited] trying to cause problems for muslims. No one has ever met this sheikh haron because he doesnt exist, the whole thing is a very expensive joke/entrapment/image denting/a way to demonise the muslim ummah and make it take blame for anything bad that happens."