(Editor's Note: Contains language some readers may find objectionable.)
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The conviction of a group of young Australians of Lebanese origin for a series of brutal gang rapes involving white teenage girls has sparked a public debate about ethnicity and crime.
Muslim community representatives are unhappy with the way media and politicians have handled the case, and they charge that an entire ethnic group is being tarred with the same brush.
Most of the 14 convicted men have not been named because they were under 18 at the time of the offenses, which occurred in Sydney over a six-week period in 2000, and involved assaults on at least seven teenagers, the youngest aged 14.
Victims told the court they were lured or forced to go to parks or other remote spots by groups of males, who would then use mobile phones to call up others and invite them to participate.
In some cases, victims were raped more than a dozen times by up to 14 young men, sometimes at gun- or knife-point.
One victim received repeated phone threats from unknown people until a fortnight before the trial began; and a witness was shot, prompting a police investigation into whether the shooting was linked to the evidence he would provide.
Two of the older men convicted late last week in the last of a series of trials have now been identified, their names and photographs published on the front page of a Sydney tabloid.
Presiding District Court Judge Michael Finnane wanted to name the others, but he said Monday his hands were tied by the existing law.
The premier of New South Wales state, Bob Carr, argued that the rapists should not merit the protection of anonymity usually afforded to juvenile offenders.
State opposition politicians have suggested a law change that will enable the naming of anyone convicted of a crime that carries a penalty of more than five years' imprisonment.
But an organization representing Australian Muslims - most of whom are Arabs of Lebanese origin - said identifying the men was wrong and could cause unfair hardship for family members or others in the Lebanese community.
Lebanese Muslim Association spokesman Keysar Trad criticized state premier Carr for backing the naming of the convicted rapists.
He said the two identified men had been assaulted in prison at the weekend, and that their families had received threatening calls.
"This is the danger of identifying someone ... it's not only the person who's been convicted who suffers, it's also the family that suffers and maybe the entire neighborhood in some instances," Trad said.
A prisons' service spokesman denied the assault claim, but confirmed the two had been separated from other inmates after voicing fears for their safety.
The issue of the rapists' ethnicity and possible racial motivation has provoked debate.
The judge presiding in an earlier trial stressed she had seen no evidence of "any racial element" in the crimes. (The same judge handed down sentences that were widely condemned as too lenient, and which were more than doubled after an appeal.)
But contrary to the judge's assertion, a victim speaking outside the court said one of her attackers told her that she deserved to be raped "because you're Australian."
She said all ethnic references had been excised from her statement by prosecutors keen to secure a plea-bargain deal.
In another case, an 18-year-old raped up to 25 times by 14 men in a six-hour ordeal, who had a gun pointed to her head and was at one stage sprayed down with a fire hose, said she had been called an "Aussie pig," and had been told: "I'm going to f*** you Leb-style."
'Unfair media focus'
New South Wales' director of public prosecutions told Australian television Monday evening that the ethnicity of the rapists was definitely an issue in the case.
"How can you say it is not relevant when it seems to have been a factor in the motivation of the perpetrators?" Nicholas Cowdery asked.
Cowdery also offered other possible factors, including "delinquent male behavior" and even what he said may have been an attempt at self-preservation: "They look for a target outside of their own ethnic group because if they target anybody inside their own ethnic group they may not even get to court [alive]."
He denied claims made earlier by the Lebanese community that "these people were being targeted because they were of that particular ethnic group. That wasn't the case. It was never the case."
Trad of the Lebanese Muslim Association, taking part in the same program, said media reporting at the time the trials began had been "unfair because it reflected on the community rather than on the individuals."
Trad said despite the "derogatory, racist slurs" used by the attackers, their motivation had been "the object of their gratification, rather than the race of the object of their gratification."
He argued further that the criminals had "disaffiliated completely" from their own culture and religion, developing instead a street culture that emulated the violence they see in television police programs and "gang shows."
Last August, when the first of the gang rape trials was in session, some media highlighted what they portrayed as attempts by anti-Muslim racists to bring ethnicity into the case.
One report, by Britain's left-wing Guardian, was critical of "lurid" reports by local media and what it said was mainstream politicians' reluctance to challenge the "incendiary and sensationalist popular mood."
"Sydney's laid-back multicultural image could soon be shattered for good," the paper commented.
Writing in a Sydney paper Sunday, commentator Miranda Devine derided media outlets which she said had "downplayed the story and air-brushed race from it."
"These were racist crimes. They were hate crimes. The rapists chose their victims on the basis of race," she wrote.
"That fact is crucial to this story. If the perpetrators had been Anglo-Celtic Australians, the furor would have been enormous."
Australia's Muslim community comprises mostly citizens of Arab extraction, including more than 150,000 Lebanese. The country's total population is 19 million.
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