Prisoners convert to Islam in escape plot

By Nick Squires

One of Australia's most dangerous criminals paid fellow inmates to convert to Islam as a prelude to planning an audacious escape from the country's toughest jail, it was alleged yesterday.

Convicted murderer Bassam Hamzy arranged for cash payments to be secretly made to prisoners prepared to worship Allah and help him plot an escape from the Super Max section of Goulburn jail in New South Wales.

In what prison authorities described as a "pay to pray" conspiracy, 12 of the 37 inmates at the Super Max facility became Muslim fundamentalists or converts. They all shaved their heads, grew long beards and prayed in their cells up to five times a day. Some are of Muslim background but others are white Australians or Aborigines.

A small but growing number of Aborigines are turning to Islam, in part as a source of spiritual pride but also as a rejection of the drug and alcohol abuse which has wreaked havoc among indigenous people.

"The officers are using a term down there now at Goulburn jail - 'pay to pray'," said Ron Woodham, the head of New South Wales Corrective Services. "These people have never had any contact or interest in religion before and all of a sudden they're converting to Islam. Hamzy is the powerbroker or the organiser, as if he's forming a gang," Woodham told Southern Cross radio.

Using surveillance and intelligence gathering, authorities moved swiftly to disrupt what they described as a "carefully orchestrated" plot. Prisoners have been banned from accessing the outside funds, visits by friends and family have been curtailed and gang members have been ordered to speak only in English. Hamzy has been moved to a prison in Lithgow, west of Sydney.

He is alleged to have been building a web of support in which murderers, rapists and armed robbers were receiving regular payments of A$100 - a modest amount in the outside world, but more than enough to enable inmates to buy radios, cigarettes and other luxuries. The payments were traced to a bank account in Bankstown, a Sydney suburb with a large Arabic and Muslim population.

The prisoners who converted to Islam probably did so as an act of rebellion rather than out of a genuine interest in the religion, a criminologist said. "It's a way of exercising control over your circumstances and flexing some collective muscle," said Stephen Smallbone, a former prison psychiatrist and now an associate professor in criminology at Griffith University in Queensland. "It's chest beating - they know it's a scary proposition for prison officers. They are living in an environment in which there is otherwise very little opportunity to establish their authority."

Hamzy was one of the gravest threats to the security of a prison ever encountered in New South Wales, Woodham said. The 28-year-old is serving 21 years for shooting dead an 18-year-old man outside a Sydney nightclub in 1998. A Muslim fundamentalist, he is an admirer of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Such was his hold over fellow inmates that some were observed by prison officers kneeling at his feet and kissing his hand. They held meetings in which they discussed Islam and martyrdom.

Authorities continue to investigate the escape plan, which would have involved the gang seizing prison officers, taking control of Super Max and breaking out of jail.

Code-breakers and translators are examining recordings of inmates' telephone conversations - a mixture of English and Arabic.

When the first prisoners began to convert from Christianity to Islam two years ago, prison officers regarded the development benignly, regarding the self-discipline and solace provided by the religion as a means of rehabilitation. "We actually gave them prayer mats," Woodham said.

But more sinister motives began to emerge. "We don't have a difficulty with people taking up a religion per se in jail," Justice Minister John Hatzistergos told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Where we do draw the line is where religion is really a camouflage for other activities."

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