Travellers from around the country were passing through Canberra Airport’s security checkpoint or waiting to board their planes when a man shocked them all by opening fire with a gun within the building.
Among those who joined the stampede and fled for a place to hide when security yelled, “Run, run”, was a woman, her seven-month-old baby, her blind sister and their elderly mother, whose story was one of those heard at the sentencing hearing of airport shooter Ali Rachid Ammoun.
The woman’s family was checking through security when she said she heard the first two gunshots, then turned to see Ammoun using a .38/200 Smith & Wesson revolver to fire more shots at the airport’s windows, she told the ACT Magistrates Court on Thursday (16 March).
She told her sister, “It’s a man shooting a gun”, and got her to hold onto her arm to guide her as they ran through the airport while their mother carried her baby.
Others asked her what was happening as they fled. She told them, “There is a man shooting a gun, run”, and they started to flee as well, running onto planes or hiding in bathrooms.
The woman said her family huddled behind a wall and she borrowed a phone to call her father, who had been waiting around outside and told him not to come back.
She was relieved when she eventually heard security doing a sweep down the hall, but her sister started vomiting and appeared to have a panic attack.
“We were lucky everyone banded together and helped where they could,” she said.
Her sister later told her that when she heard, “Run, run”, she thought that meant Ammoun was pointing a gun at her.
“You have hurt us,” the woman from Melbourne told him in court.
“I don’t know what your intention was that day … but what I do know is you bore no consideration for those around you that day, and in doing so, you have changed our lives.”
The court heard from several others who had been at the airport that afternoon, 14 August 2022, including a woman who was going to fly to Brisbane with her parents and children and broke her knee when she fell over during the stampede.
She wrote that she couldn’t move from the pain when she fell over and thought she was going to die because she was an “easy victim” lying on the floor.
Her mother, who said at the time she assumed it had been a terrorist attack, turned around during the stampede to see her daughter lying on the ground and thought she’d been shot.
“Now I know I’m not safe in airports when any person can walk in with a loaded gun,” she said.
When the gunshots were fired, this woman’s father also said, “I told my family to run; we did not know if this was one or 10 people with guns”.
Fifteen victims wrote statements for the court detailing the impact the offending had on their lives, including being traumatised, feeling like they might die, having sleepless nights, feeling unsafe in public and not wanting to leave home.
Last year, the then-63-year-old Ammoun pleaded guilty to recklessly discharging a firearm at a dwelling and unauthorised possession of the revolver.
In 2008, he had been convicted of attempting to murder his ex-wife, as well as other charges, for which he was sentenced to 16 years’ jail by the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
When he testified to the court on Thursday, he said his actions at the airport were a response to the sense of injustice he had over that case, as he had spent about 14 years in jail for what he claimed was “a crime I didn’t do”.
“I didn’t just walk to Canberra Airport to do what I did for fun,” he said.
“I wanted people to know what happened to me in Western Australia.”
He had exhausted his appeal rights in the state and said he complained about what happened to many people, including members of parliament, police and journalists, but was told they could not help him.
Ammoun said he decided what he was going to do at the Canberra Airport three days in advance. He then took a taxi from Sydney to the airport and told the driver to wait while he went inside.
He claimed he saw the side of the airport was empty, bar one woman, so he walked there, loaded his gun and fired it into the window five times before collecting the bullets from the ground and sitting to wait for police to arrive.
“100 per cent I know what I’m doing. I’m not going to hurt anybody in this country,” he said.
In cross-examination, he admitted he committed the offences while having a long-standing grudge against the lawyers, paramedics and journalists involved in the case in WA.
“I’m going to see them in person and ask them why they betrayed me,” an expert claimed he had told her.
Ammoun apologised to the people at the airport when he opened fire, telling some who were in the courtroom, “I feel very sorry”.
His Legal Aid lawyer Tamzin Lee said, according to an expert, he had been suffering from a degree of mental impairment at the time of the shooting and had endured a traumatic childhood, including being shot after war broke out in Lebanon in 1975.
Prosecutor Andrew Chatterton said a psychological assessment had set out his mental impairment, which was a delusional disorder and a narcissistic personality disorder.
He also said it appeared to be the first time an incident like this had occurred in Australia.
Magistrate Ian Temby aims to give his sentence on Wednesday (22 March). Ammoun is in custody.