The Crosslands Youth and Convention Centre, on a swathe of bushland near the outer Sydney suburb of Galston, is an unlikely starting-point for Australia’s first act of international terrorism – and what, to some, is still its greatest unsolved crime.
Anyone who managed to get past the guards into the camp that sweltering January week in 1978 would assume they had stumbled over another harmless if slightly dotty New-Age cult: meditating monks in orange and white robes and turbans, lots of dancing and chanting, steaming cauldrons of rice and vegetables.
But mingling with the devotees of Ananda Marga were agents of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and informers for the now-disbanded NSW Police Special Branch. They believed that rather than following “the Path of Bliss”, some members of the cult were “capable of … politically motivated violence” and had infiltrated it so comprehensively that they were in possession of photographs, phone-tap transcripts, lists of membership and assets, even the names of disciples rostered for kitchen duties.
In spite of this intensive surveillance, so he later testified, during the retreat a young impressionable novice named Evan Pederick was taken aside for a stroll among the gum trees and recruited to plant the bomb which exploded outside the Hilton Hotel a fortnight later. It missed the then Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, but blew two garbage collectors to bits, and fatally wounded a police officer.
In the thousands of articles written, and the dozen or so books and films produced over the past two decades – many of them by supporters of the cult’s former national spokesman, Tim Anderson, who was found guilty of the bombing but later acquitted on appeal – some intriguing conspiracy theories have been advanced about who may have been behind the bombing, including, inevitably, ASIO itself. There are grassy knolls of Kosciuszko proportions.
But the central players in the prosecution – Pederick himself, released last November after serving nearly eight years in jail for the three murders, the police, lawyers, other witnesses and informants – remain convinced that a number of people responsible for the bombing were never charged. Reports tabled in the NSW and Federal parliaments identify them as members of Ananda Marga, a cult which worships a now-deceased retired Indian railway clerk named Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar.
For them, the central mystery of the bombing is not “who did it?” but “what did ASIO know and when did it know it?” Because documents released in the past three years – an enormous cache held in the vaults of the State Archives, the report of an investigation into ASIO’s role in a related operation, and a 235-page account by the former head of the police task force – indicate two things:
Before the bombing, ASIO should have known what was planned and taken action to prevent it. Afterwards, it is quite clear that the security service withheld information from the police that could have helped them close the case sooner.
Ananda Marga had been under scrutiny almost from the moment the cult arrived in Australia about 1973 and began attracting acolytes by the hundred. It was “monitored” by NSW Special Branch operatives from 1975 onwards, when the kidnapping of a policeman during the attempted theft of explosives from a depot in New Zealand by three Margis (as followers are called) signalled the start of an international campaign of terrorism, according to a report by the former head of the NSW police task force, Detective Inspector Aarne Tees.
Tees reported that over the following two years, Margis were linked with more than 40 demonstrations and crimes of violence, including bombings, around the world, mainly directed at the Indian Government and aimed at freeing Sarkar from prison, where he was incarcerated on charges of conspiracy to murder six members and defectors from the cult.
By 1976 ASIO was also actively spying on the cult. That year marked the end of Australia’s age of terrorist innocence when a bomb went off at a woodchip mill at Bunbury in Western Australia. In the next 18 months an Indian military adviser in Australia was stabbed and kidnapped from his home, and there were attacks on the Air India office in Sydney, including the delivery of bloody, severed pigs’ heads.
In September 1977, a group identifying itself with the Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation, an organisation identified in the Tees report as the “military wing” of Ananda Marga, made its intentions chillingly clear when it wrote to the manager of Air India in Melbourne calling for Sarkar’s release and threatening: “Assassinations will be simple, quick and will come soon … the decision is in your hands as to how much bloodshed there will be: two deaths or 200.”
At the time, Tim Anderson vehemently denied the cult was involved in any of the violence. While Margis were eventually convicted in those three cases, today the cult’s new spokesman, Michael Andrews, says: “There were certain events with which we were associated. The difficulty is trying to make it clear what Ananda Marga as a mission does, and what certain individuals may have chosen to do that we can’t control.”
ASIO did not believe such disclaimers. By 1977, agents had permanent taps on telephones in five of Ananda Marga’s State headquarters, they were using listening devices, reading mail, engaging in “physical surveillance”, running informants inside the cult, and had circulated a “substantial paper” to regional ASIO offices and all State police special branches.
A tiny taste of the information that should have been ringing alarm bells in ASIO’s Canberra bunker can be gleaned from the documents, in spite of heavy-handed censorship. Four months before the Hilton bombing, for instance, agents conducted two interviews with the father of a child attending one of the cult’s schools who “had come to the conclusion that it was a dangerous organisation” and passed on information that Margis wanted to bomb the Indian High Commission, and had established a paramilitary camp on a farm near Stanthorpe in southern Queensland where disciples were trained in the martial arts and rifle practice. EVAN Pederick, now rebuilding his life in Western Australia, says he has heard that ASIO specifically “received some sort of tip-off” before the bombing, but did not act on it or pass on the information to police. “Reading between the lines, it appears that ASIO were more concerned about protecting the cover of their operatives than in helping the police … there was intense rivalry between ASIO and the NSW Special Branch and they were keeping things from each other,” he says.
Nor has there been any satisfactory explanation of why a telephone warning to Sydney police headquarters by the writer and painter David Wansbrough – who had become convinced, while working with the Margis, that they were “crazy and potentially violent” – was ignored. Wansbrough says he passed on the names of Margis who were making threats against Desai several days ahead of Desai’s arrival in Australia, but was fobbed off and told there would be “plenty of security”.
Pederick, who says he was unique in the prison system in having to defend his guilt, had in fact first come to the attention of ASIO late in 1977 when he was arrested for “minor offences arising from his participation in street marches in Brisbane” and for writing to the Courier-Mail newspaper in defence of Ananda Marga.
On February 14, the day after the bombing, Commonwealth police passed on this alarming information: “A disenchanted Ananda Marga member from Queensland, who described Pederick as the senior Ananda Marga member on the Redcliffe Peninsula, had reported him saying, `Do not worry about killing people, you kill flies and ants and cockroaches, so don’t worry about people’.”
There is a recommendation on the Commonwealth police file that Pederick should be interviewed “because of his reported tendency towards violence”, but this never happened, and the bombing remained unsolved until he walked into a police station and confessed to the crime 11 years later. “That was just incredible incompetence,” says Pederick. “It wouldn’t have prevented the bombing, but if they had leant on me then they might have solved the case much sooner.”
Even more remarkably, when Pederick moved to Canberra a year later, he applied for a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs and was subjected to an ASIO security check. The Hilton bomber was employed, with a clearance up to “secret” level, after ASIO could find “no evidence of Pederick’s involvement in acts of violence”.
An inquiry in 1994 by the ASIO watchdog, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Roger Holdich, concluded that the agency was “genuinely shocked” by the bombing and had “… received no clear warning from either its agent or from telephone interception that the Hilton bombing was going to occur”, whatever that careful wording might mean.
So much for speculation about prior warnings. What is clear from the reports is that after the bombing, ASIO did not pass on material which could have helped the police; not only on Pederick, who eventually stood trial 12 years and millions of dollars worth of police investigation later, but of other members of Ananda Marga who were never charged.
The Holdich report cites a 1984 ASIO assessment which says “[the bombing] is consistent with other Ananda Marga attacks on Indian officials during the period, and there are grounds for strongly suspecting Ananda Marga responsibility” and identifies these five Margi by their cult names “… source information and circumstantial evidence suggests that “Ainjali”, “Suvod”, “Kapil” and “Dhruva” were directed by “Abhiik” to undertake the Hilton bombing”.
The report, however, concludes: “There currently appears [to be] insufficient evidence to initiate prosecutions.”
“Abhiik Kumar”, a bearded young American Margi whose real name was Michael Luke Brandon, and who had taken out Australian citizenship and used a number of aliases, is identified in the Tees report as the likely mastermind of the bombing.
“Violence had occurred in many parts of the world shortly after Brandon’s visits,” says the report. As well, according to an ASIO informant, Brandon had once given a lecture on bomb-making, telling his students Ananda Marga no longer favoured remotely detonated devices because they had twice failed to kill Desai.
Aarne Tees, a tough, experienced detective who was in charge of the B&T task force which took on the bombing investigation in 1989, has no doubt that ASIO failed to pass material on promptly – and, in all likelihood, is still sitting on important information.
“What they gave us was old hat. The problem was there was no co-ordination between ASIO and Special Branch, who had a lot of information, and the police who were doing the investigation,” says Tees.
“ASIO was sitting on dynamite, information that might have solved it [the bombing] at the time, but they didn’t want to let it go. For instance, they sat on `Ron’ [the code-name for a senior cult member who was an ASIO informant] for a long time, and did not say they had a man inside.”
The reports show that although eventually it did conduct some briefings and pass on some material to the police, ASIO refused the police access to transcripts of telephone taps on the Ananda Marga that may have helped crack the case, and had withheld other information, apparently for fear of blowing the cover of its informants.
But precisely what, if anything, ASIO could have done to prevent the Hilton bombing, or trigger the early arrest of those it believes ultimately responsible, may not be known until its 30th anniversary.
An ASIO spokesman says the files may be released under the “30-year rule” in 2008. But the Government can, if it wants, keep them secret for 40 years, or 50 years, or, indeed, for ever.
NOW aged 60, Aarne Tees retired three years ago after a distinguished career in the Police Service and is now practising as a barrister, mainly for the defence in criminal cases. “I’ve put enough of them inside over the years,” he says. “Now it’s my turn to keep a few out.”Te
es says he har tried to put the Hilton bombing case behind him, but still believes that because of the limitations of the courts only a royal commission could get to the bottom of the case, and bring those he believes ultimately accountable to justice.
THREE months out of jail, Pederick, aged 41, has moved back to Western Australia to be close to his family, has got a job, and is trying to get on with the rest of his life.
“As far as I am concerned, the Hilton bombing belongs in history,” he says. “There is no mystery about it. I guess I was quite unique in the prison system in that I had to keep proving my guilt, whereas everyone else said they were innocent.”
Pederick has used his time to write a book which he says will give the real story of the bombing – a story which, he says has been suppressed by the media because they have been “brainwashed by the Ananda Marga and timid because of the defamation laws.”
STILL suffering physically and mentally from the after-effects of the bombing, Griffiths, 54, was one of the six people injured in the blast. A senior constable on guard duty outside the HIlton when the bomb went off, he was hit by shrapnel which blew off parts of his leg, and ripped holes in the intestines.
Griffiths was forced to retire from the police through ill-health two years later, and has spent the past 20 years turning his house in Seven Hills into an archive of information about the bombing.
He remains convinced that the bomb was never intended to go off. He believes it was planted by the security forces – particularly ASIO and the NSW.
ANDERSON has left the Ananda Marga and , at the age of 44, is working at the Sydney University of Technology where he describes himself as a “teacher, writer and political activist”. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but in the past has claimed he was “framed” by police for the bombing, and has blamed various organisations for it, including the former Soviet security service, the KGB.
Anderson, who spent more than seven years in prison but now has no criminal convictions, has degrees in economics and politics and has written three books. The dust-jacket of the latest Take Two: the criminal justice system revisited (Bantam), says: “Take Two is the chronicle of a police vendetta and a portrait of the system that sanctions such abuses.”
13 February 1978, 12.40am
A bomb explodes outside the Hil-ton Hotel in George St, Sydney, where Commonwealth heads of government including the Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai are staying. Two garbage men and a police constable killed.
Police intercept car carrying three members of Ananda Marga (“Path of Bliss”) sect allegedly on their way to bomb the home of Robert Cameron, leader of the ultra-right National Front. 10 gelignite sticks seized.
Cult members Timothy Edward Anderson, Ross Anthony Dunn and Paul Shaun Alister convicted of conspiring to murder Cameron (the “Yagoona conspiracy”) and sentenced to 16 years’ jail. Dunn and Alister sentenced to further 16 years for attempted murder of a police officer and others.
Judicial inquiry casts doubt on evidence of police informer Richard Seary, the key prosecution witness in Yagoona conspiracy trial. The three are pardoned and released after six years.
30 May 1989
Anderson charged over Hilton bombing after Raymond Denning claims Anderson confessed to him in jail. Next day cult member Evan Dunstan Pederick walks into a Brisbane police-station and confesses he planted the bomb, and alleges Anderson planned it.
Pederick pleads guilty and is sentenced to 20 years’ jail on three counts of murder and one of conspiracy.
After a 51-day trial, Anderson is convicted of three counts of murder and later sentenced to 14 years.
NSW Court of Criminal Appeal throws doubt on Pederick’s evidence and quashes Anderson’s conviction.
Pederick released from Berrima Jail after serving eight years of his sentence.
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Thursday 12 February 1998
Section: News And Features
Word count: 2486
Geographic area: Sydney
Photograph by Rick Stevens
1. Evan Pederick leaving jail last year.
2. The wrecked garbage truck outside the Hilton.
3. Aftermath .. ambulancemen, left, treat a victim at the scene.
4. garbagemen dedicate the memorial plaque in George Street.