SYDNEY (Reuters) – A group of murderers and rapists who converted to Islam in Australia’s Super Max prison has been broken up and its leader moved to another jail as officials feared they were using religion as a cover for a possible escape.
The 12 prisoners in Australia’s highest-security jail were nicknamed the “Super Max Jihadists,” authorities told local media, and had placed pictures of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden on cell walls, shaved their heads and grown long beards.
Authorities said murderer Bassam Hamzy, a devotee of bin Laden, paid the men to convert to Islam in order to form a gang of Muslim prisoners inside the Super Max facility at Goulburn jail, southwest of Sydney.
Prison authorities had seen some converts kneel before Hamzy and kiss his hand.
Hamzy was taken under tight security to another maximum security jail on Sunday, where he will have only non-contact visits and must speak English during visits and telephone calls.
New South Wales Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham vowed on Monday to break up the gang and translators were examining the telephone conversations of the group.
“These people have never had any contact or interest in religion before and all of a sudden they’re converting to Islam, and Hamzy is the powerbroker or the organizer, as if he’s forming a gang,” Woodham told Australian radio.
Woodham said prisoners had received regular payments of about A$100 ($83), a lot of money inside jail. The payments were organized by Hamzy through his outside contacts.
Woodham said he thought some of Hamzy’s converts would abandon their new religion now that they were out of contact with the ringleader. “It’s nothing to do with religion in their minds. But they play the game, Hamzy’s game,” he said.
New South Wales state Justice Minister John Hatzistergos said prison authorities were not targeting Muslims.
“A lot of inmates find religion when they come to prison and in many ways we support that because it might assist them in their rehabilitation,” Hatzistergos told reporters on Monday.
“Where we draw the line is where that conversion or embracement of religion is just a camouflage for other activity which threatens the good order and security of the system.”
Australian authorities have in the past split up prisoners fearing they were forming gangs based on ethnicity or crime-related links.
Hatzistergos said jail officials were concerned the Muslim gang may have believed Hamzy could orchestrate a jail break.
“I don’t think the potential for escape came from the Super Max, but you can’t rule out what they had in their mind long term,” he said, adding the real danger was if the gang members were moved to other prisons with less security.