On April 17, Australia’s Sydney Sunday Telegraph carried pictures of the horrific injuries inflicted on 40 year-old prisoner Michael O’Keefe by his 18 year-old cellmate Bourhan Hraichie. O’Keefe is a former Australian army reservist who had boasted of having killed Muslims while on active service. Hraichie is a known supporter of the Islamic State.
According to reports, O’Keefe, who is awaiting trial on domestic violence charges, was thought by prison authorities to be suicidal and therefore safer in a two-man cell than on his own. Hraichie was the man selected to prevent him from harming himself.
There couldn’t have been a worse choice. Almost immediately upon being placed together, Hraichie set upon O’Keefe, carved “E4E” (meaning an eye for an eye) with a razor blade into his forehead, and whipped him with an electrical cable on his back until it was raw. He also put a towel over O’Keefe’s face and soaked it with boiling water before half-strangling him. O’Keefe screamed, but no one came to his aid for quite some time, the guards being elsewhere in the prison.
Needless to say, the significance of the episode is now a matter of discussion and dispute. Was it an isolated instance of personal sadism, or a sign of advancing Islamism in Australia’s prisons and Muslim population (1.7 per cent in 2006, 2.2 per cent in 2011)? How alarmed should the country be?
As it happens, I was asked not long ago to assess someone charged with a very similar attack, which ended in the death of the victim. He was one of a group of alcoholics who went to the home of an elderly alcoholic seeking repayment of a $15 debt. To extract the money, they tied him to his chair, whipped him with electrical cables, punched and kicked him, and poured boiling water over him. They tortured him for two hours without result; he was still alive when they left, but he died soon afterward. The sadism of this attack equalled Hraiche’s, and indeed closely resembled it, but it was without any patina of ideology, political or religious. Men don’t need ideology to be psychopathic sadists.
But it may help. Against the interpretation of Hraiche’s attack on O’Keefe as a manifestation of purely personal sadism is his previously expressed support for the Islamic State (a case of elective affinity, no doubt), and also the fact that no one in the cells nearest to Hraiche called the guards on their emergency bells for fear of retaliation by Hraiche and his acolytes. In other words, there was a powerful group of prisoners in the jail who thought and felt as Hraiche did, or would at least obey his orders. The Islamists are thus a kind of prison Mafia, with their own version of omertà. This is far from the first time that anxieties have been raised about Islamism in Australian prisons; but the assessment of the scale and scope of the threat is far from straightforward. There is a tendency to oscillate between complacency and panic.
Photo by Mie Ahmt/iStock