Gang Rape in Sydney: Crime, the Media, Politics, Race and Sentencing

AuthorKate Warner
Date01 December 2004
Publication Date01 December 2004
Crim 37.3-text-final Crim 37.3-text-final 10/1/04 4:05 PM Page 344
Gang Rape in Sydney: Crime, the Media,
Politics, Race and Sentencing
Kate Warner
University of Tasmania, Australia
In 2001 and 2002,print,radio and television gave extensive coverage to
a series of gang rapes in Bankstown and other suburbs of south-west
Sydney. The coverage attacked the laxity and inefficiency of the criminal
justice system and immigration policy. It fuelled public fears about
increases in crime in particular areas and fear of “ethnic gangs” and
racially-motivated crime. The sentences imposed on three youths of
Lebanese background in the first of these cases to be dealt with
attracted widespread criticism from politicians, the media and the public
because of their leniency. These events occurred at a time when issues
of race were in the news as a result of the arrival of “boat people”,
followed by a heightened fear of terrorism because of the events of
September 11, 2001. The issue of gang rape by ethnic-minority youth
resurfaced in August 2002 when a second group of offenders, again
Lebanese-Australian youth, were sentenced, this time with gaol terms
which for the most part were applauded for their severity. In parliament,
legislation was introduced to increase penalties and political parties
engaged in a pre-election law-and-order auction. These events are
portrayed as an example of how a localised story about crime can
become “racialised” and linked with debates about asylum-seekers and
terrorism.This article attempts to draw out some of the criminal-justice
issues from this story. In particular it explores some of the flaws in the
sentencing process that assisted in inflaming the debate. A pedagogical
role for judges is suggested in relation to the public understanding of
crime and guideline judgements are recommended.
The moral panic about “mugging” in the 1970s in the United Kingdom, with its
connection between the two exclusionary themes of immigration control and crime
has clear parallels with the ethnic gang rapes in Sydney in 2000 and 2001. Hall,
Crichter, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts (1978) did not deny that some black youths
were involved in what came to be known as mugging, but they argued that the
official reaction was out of proportion to the crime and effectively criminalised an
entire social group, namely young Black males. Street crime was portrayed by the
media as a new danger associated with a newly-arrived segment of the population.
Address for correspondence: Professor Kate Warner, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania,
GPO Box 252–89, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia. Email:
VOLUME 37 NUMBER 3 2004 PP. 344–361

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Similarly, in Sydney in the years 2000 and 2001, there were rapes committed by
Lebanese youth, but their incidence was inflated by the media (and the police).
This led to a heated debate about ethnic crime and links were made between
ethnic Arab, Middle-Eastern and Muslim offenders, immigration, asylum-seekers
and terrorists.
While this analysis of the Sydney gang rapes does not purport to be an analysis or
study of a moral panic in the strict social-science sense (Cohen, 1980; Thompson,
1998), or to engage in debate about the concept (Waddington, 1986), my point is
that the story of the gang rapes reveals common characteristics of a moral panic: a
high level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group or category of people, an
increased level of hostility towards the group regarded as a threat, and disproportion-
ality or an exaggeration of the threat. But most particularly it demonstrates the
“signification spiral” (Thompson, 1998, pp. 16, 19), the way a specific issue was
linked to other problems (here, gang rape with illegal immigrants and terrorism),
amplifying the perceived risks. It was not the first time that crime has been racialised
in relation to Lebanese youth in Sydney as Collins, Noble, Poynting, & Tabar
(2000) have demonstrated, nor is it a recent phenomenon to portray street crime as
new and unprecedented and a danger associated with the newly arrived. Pearson
(1983) asserts that the English have been blaming violence on somebody else for
centuries, attributing increased street crime in eighteenth century London to “the
uncontrolled importation of Irish vagabonds” (p. 236) and to “lawless tribes of street
arabs” in the 1840s (p. 209). Similarly, it has been shown that law-and-order
discourse often links perceived increases in crime with particular racial or ethnic
minorities (Hogg & Brown, 1998). Hogg and Brown (1998) predicted that while
these links were less a feature of law-and-order politics in Australia compared with
USA and Britain, “this may be changing” (p. 118). The political and media response
to the Sydney gang rapes show that it is indeed changing.
The Rapes
In September 2000, police informants telephoned a reporter with the story that
there were upcoming court appearances by youths charged with sexual assaults with
ethnic overtones , the perpetrators allegedly having asked the victims if they had
Arabic blood or Arabic boyfriends (Wockner, 2001; Poynting, 2002b). However,
the Sydney Olympics were dominating the news coverage at this time and the
media gave little coverage to the story until July 2001, when print, radio and televi-
sion media reported gang rapes by Lebanese-Muslim Australians targeting white
Australian women, particularly in the Bankstown area of south-western Sydney,
which has one of the highest concentrations of Lebanese-background immigrants
in Australia (Bloustein & Israel, 2003). The climate by mid-2001 had changed
significantly. Australia was no longer in the grip of Olympic fever; instead we were
in the midst of anxiety about Arabic or Middle-Eastern or Muslim asylum-seekers
and the Middle-Eastern connection made the racial aspects of the rapes newswor-
thy. In June, the Australian Federal Police had intercepted a boat off Christmas
Island carrying suspected illegal immigrants from the Middle East (,
“Timeline”, 2001). Stories of leaky boats landing with hundreds of Afghan or Iraqi
refugees and more boats on the way followed (“Leaky boat lands 348”, 2001). On

Crim 37.3-text-final 10/1/04 4:05 PM Page 346
July 29, 2001, headlines in the Sun-Herald proclaimed: “70 Girls Attacked by Rape
Gangs”, “Police Warning on New Race Crime” and “Caucasian Women the
Targets”. Tabloid newspapers and talkback radio highlighted the racial aspects of
the attacks in an inflammatory way, and it was suggested that there had been an
attempt by police and the New South Wales (NSW) government to cover up the
crimes (NSW Anti-discrimination Board, 2003). The NSW Premier, Bob Carr,
identified Lebanese gangs as responsible for recent trouble around
Canterbury–Bankstown and was quoted as saying: “We, backed by the community,
will win this one. And people trying to destroy the Australian way of life will not
succeed” (NSW Anti-discrimination Board, 2003, p. 57). He was also reported as
having “called for a tightening of immigration policies to reduce ethnic crime on
Sydney’s streets” (O’Malley, 2001, p. 3). This was followed by a meeting with the
Minister for Immigration and an announcement that visa applicants to Australia
would be questioned over military experience. Carr was quoted as saying: “One of
my main concerns has been with people with military experience and seemingly no
other skills ending up in Australia” (O’Malley, 2001, p. 3) and that “ethnic crime
gangs” were “causing mayhem on the streets … because of decisions about immigra-
tion made decades ago” (Morris, 2001, p. 8). Such comments clearly demonstrate
the way politicians have drawn the link between immigration, criminals and ethnic
minority communities.
In August 2001, the Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and
Research, Don Weatherburn, issued a press release to refute the claims of a crime
wave of gang rape in the Bankstown area (Weatherburn, 2001). This reported that
the recorded rate of sexual assault in Bankstown had remained stable since 1995,
mostly remaining under 10 offences per month. The only change to this pattern
occurred in June 1999 when 70 incidents of sexual assault were recorded by
Bankstown police. These offences were not committed by members of a gang, but
mainly by a single individual (Lesley Ketteringham) who had since been appre-
hended, convicted and imprisoned. Weatherburn pointed out that the rate of
sexual assault was nearly twice as high in the state’s Northern Statistical Division,
and more than twice as high in its North Western Statistical Division, areas where
very few people of Arab-background or Muslims live. However, this voice of reason
did little to stem the tide of invective directed at ethnic gangs.
The debate was inflamed when lenient sentences were imposed in the first case to
reach the courts involving rape by a group of young Lebanese Australians (AEM and
). This was the first case to attract media attention although it was apparently
not the first case reported to the police. It seems there was a series of some 12
reported attacks, apparently involving Lebanese youth, the first in April 2000 and the
last in October 2000 (Crichton & Stevenson, 2002)1.Allegedly, many of these attacks
involved the same “gang”, although not all were present on each occasion. It does not
appear that AEM and his group were...

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