“The first day of my sentence, I remember walking past the surrounding prison cells. All were numbered, ranging from 10 to 20 years,” Ramzi Aouad recounts, in a handwritten letter from his maximum-security prison cell. “When I finally arrived at my cell, my door was not marked with any number or years.” At the age of 22, Aouad was sent to Goulburn Correctional Centre without the possibility of parole. “A life sentence! Never to be released!” he writes. “A death sentence!”
For his role in a drive-by shooting in the south-western Sydney suburb of Greenacre in 2003, leaving two dead, Aouad was committed to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison, on the basis of an investigation that was politically motivated and using evidence that should never have reached a court of law. It was a Faustian plot – one New South Wales detective described it as a “deal with the devil”.
“I came to jail at the tender age of 22 years old, I was a troubled and misguided young man. I did what men have done before me, hanging around the wrong crowd, experimenting with drugs, trying to explore the life that I lived in by making poor decisions.”
Aouad did not give evidence at his trial or at the sentence hearing. In court, no hard evidence was presented – the jury was left to rely on the story of one man, Khaled “Crazy” Taleb, a central figure in a spate of gang murders, granted indemnity by police and walking freely among us today. “It’s like the Godfather meets Romeo and Juliet with a touch of Quentin Tarantino thrown in,” read the opening line from a Sydney Morning Herald report.
Documents from the police investigation, unseen until now, reveal how witness statements were elicited, and how the NSW Crime Commission was able to financially induce witness testimony. With almost no judicial scrutiny, the Crime Commission handed back millions of dollars’ worth of crooked assets to major crime figures.
In 2011, on the same day former Crime Commission assistant director Mark Standen was found guilty of using his position to pervert the course of justice, as well as conspiring to import and supply 300 kilograms of pseudoephedrine (a chemical precursor to methamphetamine), newly appointed police minister Michael Gallacher announced a review of the Crime Commission. From Opposition, Gallacher had claimed that under the Criminal Assets Recovery Act the state’s most secretive and powerful police agency had essentially been “washing” criminal proceeds and taking a cut.
The review made 57 recommendations for reform, most of which the government included in the subsequent NSW Crime Commission Act 2012. However, among those left out was Supreme Court oversight of criminal asset recovery orders. The report recommended that a judge should review both the value and the amount of assets being seized in deals between the Crime Commission and criminals. Instead, the government simply required that guidelines, established by the Crime Commission itself, must be complied with and a certificate confirming compliance be presented to the court.
Beginning in 2001, a series of drive-by shootings rocked Sydney. The attacks were reported as a war between two rival Lebanese crime families, the Darwiches and the Razzaks.
The initial dispute was a turf war over drugs in the Greater Western Sydney area. Adnan “Eddie” Darwiche, the general of the Darwiche family, controlled drug runs stretching from Punchbowl to Penrith, leaving the outskirts, from Hurstville to Cronulla, to the Razzak gang.
The only reason the two factions tolerated each other at all was because they were bound by an inter-family marriage: Adnan Darwiche’s sister, Khadije, was married to Ali Abdul Razzak, the uncle of the young Razzak crew. As the marriage allegedly became physically abusive, street disputes among the two crews began to fire up.
The result was a suburban gang war that would result in the murder of five people and the imprisonment of seven others, and three would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It also highlighted disturbing attitudes in the policing of underworld crime, and the extent to which the law is willing to not only absolve some dangerous criminals in the pursuit of eye-catching convictions, but to pay them for it.
“Needless to say, much pressure was placed on Government and New South Wales Police to quickly resolve these crimes,” writes Detective Bob Inkster in a confidential paper delivered to NSW State Crime Command. “On Friday afternoon the 17 October 2003, I was directed … to telephone the Deputy Commissioner, behind closed doors and was directed to put together a confidential briefing paper on the formation of a multi skilled task force, incorporating high visibility policing strategies and an investigative capacity to address the high profile violent crime in the south western suburbs.” He showed what was described as “disturbing video footage” showing “the behaviour and attitude of the people we were to deal with”.
The briefing was followed by a “highly protected” report prepared by Sergeant Megan Webster, in which a recommendation was made to establish a dedicated investigative response to “the Middle Eastern Organised Crime problem”.
At first, the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad – which grew out of Task Force Gain – had the logo of a wood wasp, the natural enemy of the cedar tree, printed on the neckties of detectives. After a complaint was lodged (because the cedar tree is a prominent feature of the Lebanese flag) another suggestion was offered – an image of a mullet, a popular haircut among young Middle Easterners in Sydney’s western suburbs, being snipped off with a pair of scissors. The tagline: “Cutting out crime.”
And there was the squad’s obscure, unofficial motto, “…but fuck one goat”, which, according to the old joke, expressed that no matter what good you did, it could all be overshadowed by one horrific deed. This was eventually replaced with “Auspecium Melioris Aevi” (“Hope of a better age”), taken from the Order of St Michael and St George, and matched with an image of the archangel Michael overcoming Satan with a flaming sword.
I recently spoke to former NSW assistant police commissioner Ken McKay, known within the force as “Slasher”, who was instrumental in setting up the squad. On crime in the western suburbs, he told me, “their behaviour goes back to old tribalism. It goes way back.” When asked to address the sociological reasons someone may turn to crime, McKay smiled. “Oh, someone else’s fault, you mean?” He called it the “ace of race”. “They’re not a group of downtrodden new arrivals into the country. They’re born here. They have every opportunity. They have all of the welfare that money can throw at them. It’s just their way of thinking.”
In prison, Ramzi Aouad recalls his youth. “We were still exploring the world. You’ve got a friend, he’s your best friend, and you think it’s going to last forever. Then you realise he’s not your friend. You know what I’m saying?” Our phone call is interrupted by beeping, signalling its final minutes. “You’re still exploring reality. You’re learning. You get a bit of freedom; your parents let you go out. It’s dark.”
After dropping out of Punchbowl Boys High School in Year 9, Aouad was recruited into the Darwiche fold. “Basically, all the boys you know go to the same school. Punchbowl, around there. Everyone just sort of grows up around each other,” he says. “[Adnan Darwiche] was my cousin’s friend. If you’re from the area, everyone’s just kind of friends.”
Aouad married a local girl named Donna Fahda, whose brothers Ahmed and Mohammad were violent enforcers allied with the Razzak syndicate. In August 2003, Aouad and Donna divorced. Her eldest brother, Ahmed, had recently been released from prison after being acquitted of a murder sentence and, according to a member of the Darwiche group, was now looking “to pop” Aouad because of the way he treated his sister. That same month, 55 shots were fired into Aouad’s family home in the western suburb of Liverpool.
In Aouad’s parents’ home, his mother, Fifi, sets a bowl of pomegranates and a plate of Tim Tams on the table. On the wall, a wedding photo of Ramzi is partly covered with a Polaroid of him now, in prison greens with a long beard and stocky frame.
His father, Jamal, lights a cigarette. “We don’t know if it was two or three people that were shooting at our house, but they hit our home with about a hundred bullets,” he says, as he stubs a cigarette into a glass ashtray. “You could smell the gunpowder.”
Two months later, on October 30, Ahmed Fahda and an associate, Bassam Said, were driving down Punchbowl Road when Said’s four-wheel-drive Pajero ran out of petrol. Fahda hopped out and began pushing the car to the closest service station. When they arrived, Fahda popped the bonnet as a red Commodore pulled up beside them. Two men in balaclavas ran towards Fahda, and at close range, fired a large number of rounds into his face.
The following day, NSW opposition leader John Brogden took the media to the service station where Fahda was murdered. He called on the NSW premier, Bob Carr, to “stop talking tough and start acting tough”, before comparing the shootings in Sydney’s south-west to a war-torn scene from Baghdad.
The anxieties swelled at Rookwood Cemetery, in Sydney’s west, as Fahda’s body was lowered into the grave. Keysar Trad, a leader of the nearby Lakemba Mosque at the time, remembers the unsettling atmosphere. “I recall one young leader saying something to try to create peace,” he says. “I recall there was some tension. I recall the brother of the victim … saying that he wants vengeance.” Ahmed’s brother, Mohammed “Blackie” Fahda, was 16 years old.
Calling for peace at the funeral was Fadi Abdul-Rahman, a former youth leader who was later incarcerated with Aouad and Adnan Darwiche on unrelated charges. “I know the boys,” Abdul-Rahman told me recently. “They themselves don’t know how to deal with the situation. So, they dealt with it the only way they knew – it’s either me or you.”
On March 31, 2006, the first trial of the Darwiche–Razzak saga commenced in the NSW Supreme Court. Ramzi Aouad and Naseam El-Zeyat were charged with the murder of Ahmed Fahda. They were found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. On April 8, 2011, their convictions were quashed. Fresh information revealed how NSW Police withheld crucialevidence and testimony from the Crown witness. The case would prove to be indicative of how such pressurised investigations were conducted throughout the suburban gang war.
In a Task Force Gain briefing obtained by The Monthly, then commander Bob Inkster states: “Pressure on criminal witnesses – this is not new and is sometimes the only viable option to solve crimes.” On the demand for the taskforce to solve cases without hard evidence, another former commander, Stuart Wilkins, tells me simply, “It is what it is.”
The Crown case at the trial for the murder of Ahmed Fahda depended heavily on the statements of witnesses Bassam Said, Wahib Hannouf, Haissam Hannouf, Joe Osman and Tony Haddad. They were all major crime figures.
Task Force Gain had been involved in the arrest of the Hannouf brothers two years earlier, in January 2004. Altogether, four brothers had been arrested, and they faced a total of 18 charges for manufacturing and supplying amphetamines, kidnapping, armed robbery, demanding property with menaces, and possessing illegal firearms and ammunition. Two of the brothers, Haissam Hannouf and Wahib Hannouf, had started cooperating with police on a number of crimes across the western suburbs, and now claimed to have been driving by the service station at the precise moment Fahda’s murder took place – an event later described by the judge as a “remarkable coincidence”.
Bassam Said, the passenger travelling with Fahda in the lead-up to his death, provided the testimony against Aouad and El-Zeyat that came to be central to the Crown’s case. He himself had initially been arrested and charged as an accessory in Fahda’s murder.
While in custody, Said was housed in the maximum-security Special Purpose Centre of Long Bay Correctional Centre, where he formed a friendship with another inmate, Houssam El-Jamal. In a later affidavit, El-Jamal wrote that Said told him that Said had been moved from the prison’s C Wing due to consistent communication over the walls to the Hannouf brothers.
El-Jamal also wrote in his affidavit that Bassam Said told him, while imprisoned, that “a police officer by the name of Tamer Kilani told [Said] to make a statement, stating that the shooters of Ahmed Fahda were Ramzi Aouad and Naseam El-Zeyat, even though I did not see who the shooters were”. Said reportedly added that the police threatened that if he didn’t make this statement, “you won’t be getting out of jail – you will be getting life”.
Prior to the shooting, Said had said he’d known the accused El-Zeyat for five years but had never met Aouad. And in the first few months of his arrest, he repeatedly told investigators he didn’t recognise either of the shooters.
But in Long Bay, the three men claiming to be witnesses to the murder of Ahmed Fahda had the opportunity to align their stories, and, when presented to the court, Said’s final testimony perfectly matched the statements of the Hannouf brothers.
It was also revealed in court that Hannouf family members had themselves clashed with the Fahda family in a series of violent incidents and disputes.
During the trial, Wahib Hannouf gave evidence that the NSW Crime Commission had seized property and money belonging to his family, worth approximately $1.5 million. He openly admitted that some of the money and assets had been obtained through criminal activities, and that since his arrest he had begun negotiating with the Crime Commission for their return. The Crime Commission agreed that the money and property would be returned, once Hannouf had given evidence.
There is strong evidence the Hannoufs were involved in extortion, kidnapping, car rebirthing and drug trafficking, however the Crime Commission decided that they would be more useful as witnesses than as defendants. The Hannoufs were subsequently “no-billed” on kidnapping, ransom and drugs charges in return for their testimony.
The Crime Commission returned the seized money and assets to the Hannoufs, but not before deducting $200,000 for their own expenses. (In a 2011 session of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, senator Bill Heffernan raised his concerns about deals made by the NSW Crime Commission. Heffernan, nonplussed, asked Australian Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus: “…there are negotiations by a major crime authority with criminals for money, part of which is used to fund the criminal agency? Isn’t the risk of temptation increased exponentially for entrapment, blackmail et cetera in those sorts of proceedings?” Negus replied: “Everything that you have just described is allowed for under their legislation – they do so under lawful means – and really it is a matter for the NSW parliament to decide whether or not that is an appropriate way forward.”)
Another key witness in the trial was Joe Osman. In his subsequent affidavit, Osman stated that in November 2003 he had been kidnapped by Wahib and Haissam Hannouf. The Hannouf brothers had pistol-whipped him and put a handgun in his mouth, saying, “You’re a dog. We’re going to pop you.” But when they heard sirens nearby, they panicked and let Osman go. He was picked up by detectives and taken to a hotel room. Osman was then pressed by detectives Neil Tuckerman, Mark Wakeham and Tamer Kilani, and to his surprise their line of questioning was not focused on his kidnappers, but on Adnan “Eddie” Darwiche.
Detectives presented Osman with a statement, which, after initially refusing, he ultimately signed due to “intense intimidation” from police. He also alleged that Detective Tuckerman assaulted him and that it was only then that he had signed, and that the statement was not in his words.
The final key witness in the Ahmed Fahda murder trial was Tony Haddad, an associate of Fahda, who in 2004 was arrested on a charge of perjury. When questioned by police while he was in prison, Haddad denied any knowledge of the shooting. According to court documents, he was told by police that he would be charged as an accessory after the fact. He maintained that he had no knowledge of Fahda’s murder.
When Haddad was informed that Hussein Fahda, Ahmed’s brother, had been transferred to the same prison in which he was incarcerated, he became concerned for his own safety. According to police intelligence, Haddad had previously been kidnapped and assaulted by Hussein Fahda. It is unknown why Corrections NSW would allow an accessory to murder to be housed in the same prison as the victim’s brother. Haddad immediately organised a meeting with representatives of the Crime Commission.
Haddad offered to work with police on the murder of Ahmed Fahda, and in return was promised indemnity against prosecution for crimes including a nightclub shooting, several murders and attempted murders, kidnappings, motor vehicle theft, supplying drugs, possession of guns, fraud, robbery, money laundering and assault.
An affidavit by a Crime Commission officer later disclosed the deal that Tony Haddad received in exchange for his assistance. Haddad was allowed to keep his $200,000 Ferrari, and he received lump-sum payments of $50,000 and $11,086, as well as later payments for his rent, living expenses and lawn-mowing bills.
The statement to the Crime Commission for which Haddad received the deal attested that, in the hours following Ahmed Fahda’s murder, Haddad had met with Adnan Darwiche and El-Zeyat in a park. Haddad told police that he openly pressed El-Zeyat about the Fahda shooting. “I said to [El-Zeyat], ‘Did you shoot him?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Who was with you?’ He said, ‘Me, Eddie [Darwiche], Fidel.” In the western suburbs, Ramzi Aouad was known as Fidel because of his resemblance to Fidel Castro.
Later, in Aouad and El-Zeyat’s appeal trial in 2011, Haddad claimed the statement he made was the result of pressure he experienced from people working for NSW Police and the Crime Commission and was “completely untruthful”.
The appeal eventually turned on the revelation of a previously undisclosed conversation that occurred on July 8, 2004, between Sheikh Taj Al-din al-Hilali, then the grand mufti of Australia, and the only credible witness to the murder, Bassam Said.
Sheikh al-Hilali was contacted by Detective Tamer Kilani after Ahmed Fahda’s murder. Together, they visited Bassam Said in Long Bay jail.
“When we arrived,” Sheikh al-Hilali’s later affidavit recorded, “I recall that both Detective Kilani and I entered a small room. I spoke in Arabic to Bassam Said, [and] he said to me: ‘I assure you and I swear by Allah to you that I did not recognise the killers, I did not recognise anyone. However, the police do not believe me, and they continue to insist and put pressure on me and ask me to confess that I recognise the killers.”
Bassam Said signed four statements in total, and this conversation was in line with the first statement he provided to NSW Police. The Crime Commission was paying the rent of Said’s family home and had promised that once he completed giving evidence against Ramzi Aouad and Naseam El-Zeyat, he would be provided with an overseas holiday as part of a witness protection program.
In court, defence barrister Malcolm Ramage QC highlighted the “corrupt methodology on the part of those police involved in Ramzi’s trials and the way in which final witness statements were obtained”.
Aouad and El-Zeyat’s life sentences for the murder of Ahmed Fahda were overturned. The following year, as they anticipated a new trial, the director of public prosecutions dropped any further proceedings in that matter.
However, the sentence for which Aouad is imprisoned today was not associated with the murder of Fahda.
Aouad was convicted for life without parole for a separate shooting that same month of 2003, on Lawford Street, Greenacre. In the Fahda murder trial, the original conviction had relied largely on five witnesses. In the Lawford Street trial, there was only one: Khaled Taleb. There was no hard evidence in either trial. And the same police taskforce, the same detectives, were running both shows.
Khaled Taleb, known within the Darwiche crew as Crazy Taleb, was Adnan Darwiche’s right-hand man within the criminal syndicate. He is short and stocky, with a heavy stutter, and aggressive physical tics.
“He wasn’t mentally stable, he wasn’t all there,” says former youth worker Fadi Abdul-Rahman. “[Khaled] was a bit of a fruit loop. That’s why they used to call him Crazy.” Former assistant commissioner Ken McKay agrees: “He was exactly that, mate – crazy. Mad as a hatter.”
In exchange for his signed statement, describing in detail the inner workings of the gangs and their criminal activities, and firsthand accounts of the violence, Khaled Taleb was indemnified of four murders and 17 attempted murders. The confidential application for indemnity, sent by the police’s State Crime Command to the attorney-general, and obtained by The Monthly, purports: “In the history of organised crime, you could look upon Khaled Taleb as being akin to Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano, a trusted confidant and standover man who brought down Mafia Godfather John Gotti.” In return for his cooperation, Gravano walked free after admitting to 19 murders.
In Aouad’s trial for the 2003 Lawford Street killings, the Crown prosecutor explained, “The reality is [that] to crack crimes of this type and in this case, the evidence must come from a man on the inside. That is Khaled Taleb.”
In the early 2000s, Middle Eastern crime in Sydney’s western suburbs fuelled the fears of the Australian imagination, and its first home was Telopea Street in Punchbowl.
The strip was notorious for drive-through sales of cocaine, weed, heroin and ice. Inspired by the film New Jack City, street-corner drug dealers were positioned on the east end of Telopea Street and would be in charge of their respective turf. The self-styled Telopea Street Boys intercepted police radio networks and launched a series of death threats towards patrolling officers, and even threatened to bomb Bankstown Police Station.
“The [police] would get rocks thrown at them. They’d get bricks thrown at their cars,” says former commander of support for Task Force Gain, Detective Superintendent Stuart Wilkins. “They’d get surrounded. They’d get intimidated. They would be abused.
“When I was the crime manager at Bankstown, some of these young Arabic men would get pulled over by police. They would be straight on their mobile phones asking for reinforcements, and the cops would be surrounded by 20 or 30 as a group and a gang, trying to intimidate them.”
On March 9, 2000, shots were fired toward a marked police car as it patrolled near Telopea Street. The following day, more than a hundred police officers – supported by Police Air Wing and heavily armed members of the State Protection Group – seized control of the street. They discovered drugs, multiple handguns and more than 200 rounds of ammunition.
Dr Jamal Rifi, a Lebanese community leader in the western suburbs, says, “I guess the police at that time wanted to send a message, and they wanted to send the message in a very big, brutal display of their power.”
In May 2000, NSW Police decided to raid the street again and more than 200 officers were deployed. Roughly a dozen drug dealers were arrested and several senior members of the Telopea Street Boys were imprisoned. Again, three months later, roughly 250 uniformed police were sent to the street. Fifteen people were arrested and charged with firearms, drugs and other offences. Police discovered high-calibre handguns, a modified machine gun pistol, ammunition, bulletproof vests and a portable police radio.
NSW Police’s response to the escalating crime was the introduction of a controversial high-impact tactic called “zero tolerance policing”. This policing method originated in Harlem, New York City, in the wake of then mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 electoral campaign, which promised to “reclaim the streets”. The strategy involved a highly visible police presence enforcing every facet of the law, pursuing minor crimes with maximum fines.
Ramzi Aouad’s brother Ibby remembers the mounting pressure. “There was always police around in the areas where the Lebanese were,” he says. “Bankstown, Punchbowl, all of those surrounding areas. There was a lot of police presence – not so many detectives, but more in-your-face police.”
The idea is grounded in the so-called broken-windows theory, which argues that minor incivilities – such as unlicensed driving, vandalism and graffiti – create an atmosphere that generates more serious offences. However, recent studies suggest the theory is baseless.
“[We felt] trapped, controlled,” Ibby Aouad tells me. “When the police came, you felt like someone was going to get arrested, or that someone was going to get taken in. It’s a strategy they had to make people feel that way.” He laughs. “People used to run even if they didn’t do anything wrong.”
Ibby remembers the first time his brother was arrested. “We were in Liverpool. Ramzi’s car was broken down so I brought his keys. When I got there, there would’ve been about four police cars. He was getting arrested for parking in a no-parking zone. I just seen him getting handcuffed, and I said, ‘Why are you taking him away?’, and then they even arrested me.” The silences between his thoughts lengthen. “One of us got charged for offensive language … When you get arrested for no reason, you’re going to throw off a few words.”
Following the police raids that dismantled the Telopea Street Boys, there was a vacuum in the drug market.
In a Task Force Gain staff presentation obtained by The Monthly, then detective superintendent Bob Inkster notes: “Behind the scenes, the arrest of the major targets led to a change in the control of the drug supply and other organised criminal activities formerly controlled from Telopea Street. For some, such as Adnan Darwiche (who were close associates of the Telopea Street Boys), it was a natural progression/expansion within the group.”
It was in late 2000 and early 2001 that Adnan “Eddie” Darwiche stepped in to fill the void. According to a source associated with the Darwiche crew, Adnan had “four or five [drug] runs in Sydney and one interstate run”. At first, he was involved in the supply of cannabis in south-western Sydney, but as he grew in prominence he began selling speed and ecstasy through the Greater Western Sydney area. His right-hand man was Khaled Taleb. Their only competition were members of the Razzak crime syndicate: Bilal Razzak and his cousins, Gehad and Ziad Razzak.
From time to time, arguments would flare up between drug runners working for the rival gangs, but the disputes were always resolved internally. Behind the Darwiches’ war games over drug territory with the Razzaks, there was the inter-family marriage. Adnan Darwiche’s sister, Khadije, was married to the Razzak crew’s uncle, Ali Abdul Razzak. Both families have ties that trace back to the same village in northern Lebanon. In a written statement obtained by The Monthly, Khaled Taleb claimed that Darwiche liked “causing dramas” for the Razzaks because Ali Abdul Razzak was physically abusing Khadije.
Tensions were brewing and in February 2001, the Darwiche crew began hearing rumours that Bilal Razzak was trying to get someone to shoot Taleb. “A couple of big families were causing fitna [unrest] and talking shit,” a source associated with the Darwiche crew tells me. “They were running the weapons trade to both sides because they wanted to divide and conquer.” The gossip came to a halt when Adnan Darwiche and Taleb ran into Bilal Razzak in Bankstown Square (now Bankstown Central), a small shopping district of cafes and sports retail. Darwiche demanded that Razzak hand over his phone, a standover tactic used by drug dealers to steal competitors’ contacts. When he refused, Taleb and Darwiche attacked him.
Days later, on February 25, shots were fired into Darwiche’s car outside his family home in Punchbowl. Within the unwritten codes of the western Sydney underworld, the home was considered sacred. The rules were that gang members were to meet in a local park and sort out their differences in a shootout or fistfight. In some cases, between Muslims, an imam or sheikh would intervene to settle the dispute.
Darwiche viewed the firing of shots outside his family home as a serious affront to his reputation within the criminal circles of the western suburbs. That night, he went with Taleb and two other associates to a block of units located in Bankstown where Bilal Razzak was living. The driver waited in the car while Darwiche and Taleb fired shots at the units. The source associated with the Darwiche crew says, “Adnan opened the door for drive-bys at family homes. He made it okay to shoot houses.”
After these gun attacks, there was a meeting attended by members of the Darwiche and Razzak families to settle the dispute. Adnan Darwiche demanded of Bilal Razzak’s father: “I want you to give me Bilal or he must leave the country.” Within a few days, Bilal Razzak flew to Lebanon, where he remained until early May 2001.
On the evening of June 17, 2001, Darwiche and an associate named Mitch Ayoubi entered the Razzak family unit on Sir Joseph Banks Street, Bankstown. Darwiche had heard that Bilal Razzak had come home. Darwiche and Ayoubi were wearing balaclavas and dark clothing.
According to Taleb’s detailed witness statement, Darwiche later told him: “I opened a door, and Bill and Samear [Bilal’s cousin] were in the room. Bill jumped up on the bed and started screaming, ‘Eddie! Eddie!’ and jumping up and down on the bed and I started shooting him.” Darwiche fired five shots. A bullet entered Bilal’s right flank and passed through his liver, vertebral column, left kidney and part of the colon, exiting on the left side of his body. There were entry and exit wounds to his right and left knees. He was lucky to be alive.
In the period following the shooting, there were further attempts to broker peace between the two families. Shortly after Gehad Razzak, the muscle of the crew, was released from prison, he met with Darwiche, who agreed to pay diya (blood money) to Bilal as compensation for having shot him. Between $10,000 and $15,000 was paid to Gehad to settle the score.
Darwiche’s associates claim that a peace agreement was reached around this time and that he became “a different person”. When his father passed away in 2001, Adnan wanted to fulfil his dream of undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage. He began spending more time in the mosque rediscovering his faith. Eventually, he decided to make the pilgrimage to Mecca with Khaled Taleb in 2002.
“Adnan reached the stage that we all wanted. He got out. No one wanted to live that life,” says Fadi Abdul-Rahman, who was close with Darwiche during this period. “He went to Hajj and repented. He came back a completely changed man. He didn’t want anything to do with anyone. No gangsters, no streets. When people used to approach him, he used to say, ‘Listen brother, please, I’m done with that life.’”
On July 30, 2003, as the initial shootings were beginning to feel like distant memories, and Adnan Darwiche was in Mecca for a second time, Khaled Taleb visited a friend’s local butchery in Bankstown. While he was speaking to the butcher, two masked men stormed in and began firing shots. Taleb sustained gunshot wounds to each of his legs. He was taken to Liverpool Hospital where he underwent surgery the following day. According to the source associated with the Darwiche crew, Taleb had been ripping off Razzak drug runners.
In Taleb’s witness statement, he writes, “I was shot five times by two men wearing balaclavas … The two men who shot me were Gehad and Ziggy [Ziad] Razzak … I could tell it was them just from their height and body shape and the way they stood.”
While in Saudi Arabia, Darwiche called Taleb and reached him in hospital emergency. Members of the Darwiche family said that they had advised Taleb, on numerous occasions, not to tell Darwiche what had happened. A source associated with the family says Adnan’s wife was anxious that if Taleb told him, he would end up dead or in jail.
Darwiche decided to cut his trip to Mecca short.
Taleb was still hospitalised when Darwiche returned to Australia. He told Darwiche that he thought Ziad and Gehad Razzak were responsible for his shooting, to which Darwiche replied, “This is it, I’m either gonna die or spend the rest of my life in jail. It’s on.”
On August 27, 2003, Darwiche received word that Ziad Razzak was residing at the family address in Yanderra Street, Condell Park.
That evening, Darwiche took up a position on the nature strip outside with an unknown companion. They were both armed with SKS semiautomatic rifles. A third unknown associate fired 11 rounds from a handgun into a white Mazda that was parked outside the house. Farouk “Frank” Razzak, the patriarch of the family, came out onto the lighted front verandah. As he called out to them in Arabic, the pair on the nature strip opened fire. Dozens of rounds passed Farouk and went through the aluminium-clad walls of the front bedrooms. Miraculously, no one was harmed.
Two days later, Ali Abdul Razzak had just concluded his Friday afternoon jummah prayers and was walking back to his car outside Lakemba Mosque. Witnesses observed the masked passenger of a hatchback, armed with a handgun, climb out of the car and blast several shots through Razzak’s windscreen, killing him. Fourteen spent cartridge cases were later found.
NSW Police stated that there were a number of witnesses to Ali Abdul Razzak’s murder, but no one was willing to make a formal statement. Lebanese migrants have a long and troubled history with police authority that harks back to the Middle East. Dr Jamal Rifi says, “They came from an environment where you had to rely on your family to support you.” In Lebanon, police corruption is overt. Migrants’ paranoia about such behaviour carried over from the Lebanese Civil War to Australia, and although it may have been misguided, it was being reinforced with the forceful policing strategy in Sydney.
Sheikh Taj Al-din al-Hilali, who was giving a sermon at the Lakemba Mosque on the day of the murder, recalls the tension within the community. “Everyone was scared for their kids and everyone was feeling the danger close to them,” he says. “The parents have left Lebanon because of the war there. The parents were thinking, we’ve left Lebanon for the safety of our kids, we don’t want them to be killed here in Australia.”
It was the night after the murder of Ali Abdul Razzak that gangsters launched a drive-by attack on the home of Ramzi Aouad’s parents, Jamal and Fifi, who were asleep inside. Ramzi’s brother Ibby woke up to what he thought was a nightmare: “Seeing the shock in everyone’s face. Is this happening? Why would someone do this?”
He walked around his smoke-filled suburban living room. “It rattled the whole house. My parents were devastated. My dad had just finished the house and put a new kitchen in there. The bullets went through everything in the brand-new kitchen.”
According to police documents acquired by The Monthly, “the weapons involved were a military assault rifle (7.62 calibre) and 9mm pistols. Members of the Razzak or Fahda families are considered responsible.”
Today, Ibby and his parents are still wondering why they were never asked about the home shooting. “No one got caught for it,” Ibby says. “The police didn’t have evidence – just let that one go … No [police] came up to me and asked, ‘Do you know who did it? Do you know someone who might know?’”
Fifi Aouad adds, “They didn’t give us much information. When they had come to our street to investigate, they weren’t speaking with us, they were speaking with our neighbours.”
Former assistant commissioner Ken McKay offers his view on police attitudes to gangland shootings. “When you’re getting a couple a week – kneecappings – the police are so thinly spread that it’s really, really difficult work. Ask any policeman who’s going to be honest with you, if one criminal shoots another criminal – well, the only benefit in that is you get to arrest the shooter. But in terms of any emotional concern – none. And any policeman will tell you that. You know, like, so Abdul Darwiche has been shot, the Fahdas, or a fellow in Bankstown recently – that’s good.”
On the same night, Khaled Taleb’s sister’s home in Casula was also peppered with bullets. In his witness statement, Taleb writes: “I was angry but I was thinking this is fucked, it was out of control. Eddie [Adnan Darwiche] and the boys had gone too far and now we would be in an all-out war. I was starting to think about getting out, but I had to be careful. If I showed any sign of weakness Eddie might kill me as well.”
Following the late-August shootings, Ziad and Gehad Razzak went into hiding. Ali Hamka, an associate and friend, offered his house as a place for the Razzaks to seek refuge. Ali was living with his 22-year-old wife, Mervat Nemra, in Lawford Street, Greenacre. They recently moved from a townhouse in Bankstown to give their young children a backyard. The first thing Nemra had bought for the house were swings and slides for the children.
Nemra had moved out of the house because she and Hamka feared for her safety. Their two children, Mohamed, 4, and Macy, 2, were staying with Nemra’s parents. Nemra visited Hamka once a week on her day off to clean the house.
On October 13, Nemra drove to Greenacre. She decided to spend the night there. On the same night, Adnan Darwiche received word that the Razzak brothers were staying with Hamka.
According to Khaled Taleb, it was Darwiche who decided to launch an attack on the premises.
Darwiche had bought rocket-launchers from a Darwiche crew associate named Taha Abdul-Rahman, who acquired the weapons from a member of the Rebels Motorcycle Club with links to Shane Della-Vedova, a military captain in the army explosives team.
According to police, Darwiche admitted to buying one rocket-launcher for $15,000 in 2001 and another six for $70,000 in 2003. Court documents claim that the majority of the money had been given to him by a convicted terrorist named Mohamed Elomar, who wanted Darwiche to buy five of the weapons on his behalf. (If the numbers reported to the court are correct, most of the rocket-launchers are still unaccounted for.)
During the week, the guns and a rocket-launcher were stored at a unit in Victoria Street, Punchbowl. On December 12, Darwiche, Taleb, Ramzi Aouad and an associate named Mohammed Touma met at the unit. They inspected and prepared their armoury.
Taleb admits in his statement that he supplied the ammunition for the attack. “I bought the bullets from a gun shop in Horsley Park, it had a big white bear standing inside the shop … We all put black plastic gloves on, which we got from Bunnings. We emptied the bullets on to the floor and put them in a flat pile. We then sprayed them with some gun oil that was in a yellow spray can.” Each round was wiped clean, so that it wouldn’t jam, and loaded into the guns’ magazines. The two semiautomatic rifles were the ones used in the shooting of the Razzak’s Condell Park family home.
The rocket-launcher was inspected and there was some discussion about the need to handle it with care. The gang had acquired the phone number of a Canadian mercenary, so that they could learn how to fire a rocket. “We want to fire it into a house,” one of the Darwiche crew, Abass Osman, explained on the phone to their instructor. “I just want to know if it goes through a house, a fibro house, does it have to hit something hard?” Osman eventually convinced Darwiche that he couldn’t simply sling the launcher on his shoulder and fire it, without proper earmuff protection. “You can’t just use that because, like, you are meant to put them things on your ears to block your ears. You cannot use it – if you were to use it like that, it will blow your eardrums out.” The decision was made to stick to routine weaponry for the attack.
The next day, Darwiche and some of his associates drove to the unit in Punchbowl, and Taleb writes: “Eddie came back out with two black garbage bags, one had the two SKS’s, the Mach 10 and the 9mm Glock and the other had the rocket launcher, this was always kept by itself. The bags also had the gloves in them and about seven balaclavas, which we always kept in a bag.”
During the course of the evening, the weapons were on display as discussions took place about how the attack was to be staged. According to Taleb’s statement, Darwiche led the talking, explaining the role each man was to play.
Taleb writes that Osman was to be the driver. Darwiche, Aouad, El-Zeyat and Touma were to be the shooters. Taleb claims Darwiche had earlier designated him as the driver but then decided he would be a liability because he was still on crutches. The instructions given by Darwiche were that each gunman was to start firing at the top of his allotted section of the front wall and lower his aim diagonally in order to continue hitting their targets if they fell. In Taleb’s statement, he writes, “I remember Eddie holding his hands out as if he was holding a gun … He was moving his arms like in the shape of an ‘S’”.
At 3am, Osman dropped the crew near the house on Lawford Street, a quiet cul-de-sac. All were armed. Mervat Nemra was asleep in the front bedroom. Ziad Razzak was lying in the lounge room watching television and Ali Hamka was sitting in a chair next to him. According to police reports, four gunmen stood outside the house and opened fire. A hundred rounds echoed throughout the suburb. Fifty-five shots tore through the front wall of the fibro home.
Razzak was showered in a hail of bullets. Nemra suffered a gunshot wound in the neck. Hamka could hear Razzak coughing – a bullet had penetrated the back of his skull.
When police arrived they had no clue what had happened. Hamka was screaming for help, but the ambulance would not be allowed on the property until police had organised backup. Paramedics were forced to wait at the top of the street. Hamka held Nemra in his arms for a few short minutes before she died.
When police waved their torches across the bullet-riddled walls, they found Hamka roaming around what was left of his home, in a complete state of shock. They arrested him and placed him in the back of the paddy wagon, his socks still drenched in the blood of his late wife. Razzak was removed from the scene by ambulance.
The stolen Nissan Pulsar was set alight in Pandora Street, Greenacre, where it was located by the police two hours later.
Talking to reporters afterwards, Hamka said it felt as though a semitrailer had hit his home. A few hours after the shooting Razzak died in hospital.
The following day, the front page of The Daily Telegraph read, “How Dare You Do This To Our City.” In The Sydney Morning Herald, then NSW premier Bob Carr told reporters that those responsible should “ship out of Australia”, before concluding with a blunt warning: “We’re not going to see our civilisation dragged back to medieval standards of revenge cycles.”
In the Task Force Gain presentation, a slide prepared by Bob Inkster outlines in dot points the context of the political issues: “Law and Order is a traditional election issue in NSW”; “Interplay of media and politics is highly significant”; “Politics of crime operates at different levels – Government, Local Communities & Ethnic Communities”; “International issues – Terrorism and Immigration – have an impact”.
Khaled Taleb and Adnan Darwiche met again on October 17, 2003. Taleb showed up at Darwiche’s home but was told to drive with him and Aouad to a nearby park. A source close to the Darwiche crew claims that the Razzaks had passed a message to Darwiche claiming that Taleb was speaking with police. At the park, he accused Taleb of being a police informant. Taleb told Darwiche that he was not speaking with police and that he was not wearing a listening device. He then admitted that with his “Asian mates” he had shot Ali Abdul Razzak, and confessed to being involved in all the shootings. Taleb contends that he only made these admissions because he thought Darwiche was going to shoot him. Miraculously, a police car drove towards the park during the interrogation and the meeting was called off. The next day, Taleb booked a flight to Beirut via Malaysia.
On November 28, 2003, the police swooped on Darwiche. Dragged out of his house in blue pyjamas, the hulking tyrant of the western suburbs was arrested for the 2001 shooting of Bilal Razzak in his Bankstown unit, and later for the violent spree of 2003 that included the Yanderra Street shooting of the Razzak residence, the murder of Ali Abdul Razzak outside Lakemba Mosque, the Lawford Street murders of Ziad Razzak and Mervat Nemra, and as an accessory before and after the fact to the murder of Ahmed Fahda at the service station on Punchbowl Road. His brother, Abdul Darwiche, was also arrested for the Yanderra Street shooting and charged with the attempted murder of Farouk “Frank” Razzak.
Just over a week later, on December 7, Aouad and El-Zeyat were drinking at the Kings Head Tavern, in the south-western suburb of Hurstville. As they walked to their cars, in the busy parking lot adjacent to a shopping centre, members of the Razzak gang opened fire in their direction. Aouad and El-Zeyat returned fire. Bystanders dove for cover as shots penetrated cars, though no one was injured and the assailants escaped. Aouad and El-Zeyat were arrested later that night at Sydney’s Star City Casino.
Ramzi Aouad and Naseam El-Zeyat were charged on May 26, 2004, with the murder of Ahmed Fahda. A year later, on April 28, 2005, they were both charged with the Lawford Street murders of Ziad Razzak and Mervat Nemra.
In relation to the latter charges, they were to face court in a joint trial with Adnan Darwiche and Abass Osman, which would cover their crimes as well. (Abdul Darwiche was acquitted of the Yanderra Street shooting and the attempted murder of Farouk Razzak.)
The Crown contended that a joint crime required a joint trial. This meant that although Aouad and El-Zeyat were not charged alongside Darwiche for the Yanderra Street shooting, the shooting of Bilal Razzak or the murder of Ali Abdul Razzak, they and Osman faced court alongside him. Justice Virginia Bell defended the decision by citing section 29 (2 C) of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986, where a joint trial can be heard if the series of offences are of the same or similar character. They would stand before the jury as a gang.
Defence barrister Peter Hamill SC told the court: “It would have been virtually impossible, as a matter of commonsense, for the jury to disregard the evidence led against [Adnan] Darwiche in considering the case of [Ramzi] Aouad.” Contrary to any directions from the judge, Hamill argued that the jury simply could not reach reasonable conclusions about each defendant because there were so many offences, or as he put it, “so much smoke, there must be fire”.
Police have indicated that they were in negotiation with Khaled “Crazy” Taleb for years prior to the detailed witness statement that would be used in court. In Beirut on February 6, 2006, Taleb officially detailed his involvement in the Darwiche syndicate to Detective Inspector Russell Oxford and Detective Sergeant Neil Tuckerman.
El-Zeyat asserts that, when Taleb provided his detailed statement to detectives in Beirut, Taleb was aware that El-Zeyat had already been charged with the Lawford Street murders. El-Zeyat argues that this gave Taleb an incentive to come up with an account that included him as one of the shooters. Adnan Darwiche, Ramzi Aouad and El-Zeyat all contend that Taleb was the perpetrator.
According to police documents obtained by The Monthly, Taleb confessed to a drive-by shooting in Padstow, in which 40 shots were fired into a family home, and a ballistic match confirmed that the same 9mm pistol was used in the drive-by shooting of Bilal Razzak’s unit in Bankstown on February 26, 2001, and in the double murder at Lawford Street.
During a conversation in the presence of Aoaud, it was Taleb who suggested that they should shoot Gehad Razzak first because he was the head of the family and the others would “shit themselves” if he was “got” first. In Taleb’s own signed testimony, acquired by The Monthly, he says that while he was hospitalised he did make that suggestion. He writes, “G is the head. If we put him in hospital that’ll be it, the others will fall away, we’ll get peace.”
On March 1, 2006, in a document obtained by The Monthly, Detective Oxford wrote to the NSW attorney-general appealing for indemnity from criminal prosecution for Taleb. “Despite the fact that Taleb could be described as a ruthless, violent criminal, the value of the evidence he can provide dictates that he must be used by the Crown. Witnesses of his calibre, who lived the criminal life and were privy to criminal acts of others, have to be considered as credible,” Oxford wrote. “Realistically, you have to rely upon criminals to catch criminals.”
Taleb was granted an indemnity by the attorney-general on March 21, 2006, in relation to 19 offences about which he provided information to police in an “induced statement”. In cross-examination, Taleb stated that prior to March 21, 2006, a draft version of the indemnity had been forwarded to him in Lebanon. After he observed that it had a number of offences missing, he was told that it would be amended on his return to Australia.
In total, Taleb was indemnified for four murders and 17 attempted murders. He told police about his involvement in a string of shootings, with victims including Ahmed Nagi, Hassan “Big Hass” Safwan, Navneet Mudaliar, Ahmed Al Fadly, Johnathon Malachi White, Hasham Yassine and another unnamed man. Taleb also confessed to a vast number of drive-by shootings that occurred in Chester Hill, Bankstown, Padstow, Punchbowl and Liverpool. He was also indemnified for his involvement in the Lawford Street killings.
Taleb entered into a deed of agreement with the NSW Crime Commission in relation to ongoing witness security and accommodation. The deed was executed on July 8, 2006, and made provision for the sum of $240 to be paid weekly to his family members named in the deed. The sum of $721 was to be paid weekly to Taleb for a period of four years. The deed also made provision for the payment of economy airfares from Lebanon to Australia for Taleb’s relatives, and for a motorboat to be made available to him because there was nothing to do where he was living and “he enjoyed fishing”. Court documents reveal that Taleb was financially rewarded in a sum that ranges between $750,000 to $2 million in return for seized assets that may have been proceeds of crime.
Furthermore, Taleb stated in court that the Crime Commission paid the rent for the two houses in which he and his family lived. Prior to returning to Australia, the commission also paid Taleb a total of about $12,000 for hotel accommodation and spending money. Those payments started after detectives Oxford and Tuckerman had taken his statement in Beirut and had returned to Australia. It didn’t end there: in subsequent meetings on Australian soil, Taleb refused to speak to detectives unless a family pack from Red Rooster was provided.
On April 20, 2006, Khaled Taleb made his first brief appearance in the joint trial of Adnan Darwiche, Abass Osman, Ramzi Aouad and Naseam El-Zeyat. His testimony was distorted by his uncontrollable stutter and tics that caused him to roll his eyes upwards. Justice Virginia Bell made the decision to hear his evidence outside the courtroom by audiovisual link. Darwiche, Osman, Aouad and El-Zeyat were furious that their accuser would not be facing them.
Barrister Peter Lange told the court, “where the prosecution is based upon the evidence of a witness who has not only received indemnity but financial compensation is not only an abuse of process it brings the entire justice system into disrepute”.
The case against Aouad was unique because it wholly relied on evidence from Taleb, namely his written statement. Raphael Jackson, a forensic ballistics expert, gave evidence that none of the weapons fired at the crime scenes were ever recovered. All they had against Aouad was the word of Taleb. The central issue in the trial was entirely based on how convinced the jury was of Taleb’s side of the story.
The story was compounded by the weight of evidence that detailed escalating hostilities between people of Middle Eastern background in suburban Sydney. The court heard that this reiteration in the trial created a climate of prejudice.
On April 10, 2006, each of the accused in what was known as the Darwiche trial applied for the discharge of the jury on two separate applications. The first was in reference to a report in The Daily Telegraph that morning, titled “We’re terrified: who will protect us”, with a portrait of Abdul Fahda and a subheading that read, “Dad with a target on his back”. The second application was regarding a 10 News report that made claims about witnesses suppressing their identities because they feared retribution. The tenor of the coverage was that there was no one to protect the community against the lawlessness of the Darwiche gang. Justice Bell did not believe that the accused were prejudiced and denied both applications.
In contrast, as the Darwiche trial was playing out in the Supreme Court, Rabia, Samear and Mohamed Razzak were also facing trial in the District Court, for the revenge shooting of Adnan’s brother Michael Darwiche, who was the victim of a drive-by attack in May 2004 but survived. On June 20, The Sydney Morning Heraldpublished a report concerning the Darwiche trial under the heading, “Tit-for-tat attacks lead to triple murder charge”. After considering the risk of prejudice, Judge Brian Knox SC decided “the article which appeared today in my view causes prejudice to the accused which cannot be overcome by a direction”. Accordingly, the jury in the Razzak trial was discharged.
On August 9, the Supreme Court jury convicted Adnan Darwiche in relation to the shooting of Bilal Razzak, the Yanderra Street shooting and the Lawford Street murders. El-Zeyat, Aouad and Osman were convicted of the Lawford Street murders.
The jury found Darwiche not guilty of the murder of Ali Abdul Razzak. Ali Abdul’s ex-wife, Khadije Darwiche, now contends that the story of her divorce instigating the subsequent murders was false. Her view is supported by police spokesman Peter Debnam, who said the family-feud story was a smokescreen for an escalating criminal turf war.
As they stood together in the dock, Adnan Darwiche, Naseam El-Zeyat and Ramzi Aouad, all aged in their twenties, received life sentences without the possibility of parole for the Lawford Street murders of Ziad Razzak and Mervat Nemra. The driver of the shootings, Abass Osman, was sentenced to a non-parole period of 22 years. The boys yelled “Allah hu Akbar” (“God is great”) as their sentence was called out by Justice Bell. Darwiche’s nieces and nephews wore white T-shirts that had “Not Guilty” sprawled across the front. As El-Zeyat was being removed from the court, he exploded in a fit of rage, shouting profanities at the judge.
“I didn’t go to sentencing for that reason,” says Ibby Aouad, Ramzi’s younger brother, about why he wasn’t present. “I would rather know what his sentence was than be there and see the horror on his face.” When asked about the meaning of a life sentence, Ibby still seemed confused. “I didn’t know ’til a few months later, ’til I spoke to his solicitor and I asked her, ‘What’s life?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know’. I asked her, ‘Is it 25 years?’ And she said, ‘Look, we’re not sure yet. It’s 25 years, but we’re not sure if he’s got parole.’ I didn’t know life without the possibility of parole existed here.”
NSW remains the only state in Australia where a life sentence means life.
The European Court of Human Rights has found that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a violation of the Human Rights Convention. The court’s finding was largely ignored in Australia. And in the absence of a bill of rights in Australia, it is unlikely that Darwiche, El-Zeyat and Aouad’s sentencing will raise any legal issues.
On an Autumn afternoon in 2009, Adnan Darwiche’s brother Abdul was having lunch with his family at his favourite Turkish pizza shop, Paradise Cuisine, in western Sydney’s Bass Hill. Mohammed “Blackie” Fahda, whose brother Ahmed was gunned down at the height of the war, had coincidentally organised a cocaine deal at the adjoining service station.
Blackie walked towards Abdul’s car and fired 12 shots through the passenger side, hitting him seven times. The 22-year-old Fahda brother had exacted revenge, as promised at Rookwood Cemetery at Ahmed’s burial.
In prison, Adnan Darwiche learnt of his brother’s murder on the nightly news. Prison sources have revealed that it was at this point that Adnan “blamed himself for all the crimes. All he had left were tears.”
On July 15, 2019, Ramzi Aouad’s cell in Long Bay prison was subjected to a raid. Inside a sandwich press and a fan, officers discovered a foldable knife, an iPhone and steroids. “Only the strong minded survive in jail,” he writes, in a recent letter. “It is a very dangerous place, definitely not a place you want to show any kind of weakness, or vulnerability, but fortunately I never did.”
While incarcerated, Aouad rekindled a teenage romance with Hanadi, a girl he had previously met only once. “I used to work behind 7-Eleven in Bankstown,” she recounts, “and a friend of mine had called me down saying, ‘Let’s meet up after work, I’m meeting up with someone.’ That’s when I first met Ramzi.”
From behind bars, the pair married. Hanadi giggles as she recalls their first conversation, 16 years after they met. “He was asking, like, ‘How are things? What’s new? What have the years, you know, what have the years given you?’” She breaks down in tears, and says, “He hides behind a smile.”
In a phone call, Aouad rekindles his family memories. “I will never forget the way my father would burn the chicken,” he says. “Not too much to turn you off but enough to let you know he has burnt them.” His mood softens when he is reminded of his separation. “I have noticed that when my family visit me, they don’t talk much about the fun memories we once shared as young kids. They don’t mention the outside world.”
Aouad entered prison illiterate. “Back then, I had no knowledge on how to read nor write English or Arabic, so I prayed to God and by his grace people appeared into my life who taught me how to read and write. I listened to countless CDs and read many books. Praying in the early hours of the morning is one of the best times to call out to God seeking his help. To me, I find it the best time in here, whilst everyone else is asleep.”
A prison source recounts a story about Aouad spending a night in his cell reciting “Surah Al Baqarah”, the last verse of the Qur’an to be revealed during the Farewell Pilgrimage, the last Hajj of Mohammad. According to the hadith, the Prophet Mohammad said, “Do not turn your houses into graves. Verily, Satan does not enter the house where Surat al-Baqarah is recited.”
Aouad’s younger brother Ibby highlights the closest moment he has shared with his brother. “He likes old cars, so he said a few times that he’d dream of building an old car,” Ibby says. “So I said, ‘If you want, we will build an old car together.’ ” Over discussions from prison, Ramzi would offer his brother advice on how to build the drag car of his dreams.
“So, he started choosing interior colours from Street Machine magazines he got in jail. It was like he had a job to do. And was trying to get it done. But he didn’t realise that being in jail, things take time and people need to wait.
“We realised we couldn’t afford to finish it,” Ibby says. “So, it was just another loss.”
In Ramzi Aouad’s cell, a photograph of a Mazda drag car with a rotary engine clings to the wall.
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