Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Muslim cleric whose fiery rhetoric has become synonymous with Islamist extremism in Britain, was jailed for seven years today after being found guilty of inciting his followers to kill non-believers.
The Egyptian-born Abu Hamza, 47, was convicted of 11 of 15 charges of using his influence as a spiritual leader of the Muslim community in North London to become, in the words of the prosecution, a recruiting sergeant for terrorism. His lawyer said that he would appeal against the “politically motivated” conviction.
After four days of deliberations at the end of a three-week trial, a jury of seven men and five women at the Old Bailey found Abu Hamza guilty of six of the nine most serious charges—which relate to soliciting others to murder Jews and non-Muslims.
Abu Hamza, whose real name is Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, was convicted of three out of four charges of using threatening words or behaviour to stir up racial hatred. He was also found guilty of possessing of video and audio recordings which he intended to distribute to foment racial hatred.
He was also convicted on a final charge, under section 58 of the Terrorism Act, of possessing a document, the Encyclopaedia Of Afghani Jihad, which was described as a manual for terrorism. It included a dedication to Osama bin Laden and a passage suggesting a list of potential targets including skyscrapers, the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben.
He was jailed for seven years on the six charges of incitement to murder. The remaining sentences—of 21 months for threatening words and behaviour, three years for the distribution of the tapes and three-and-a-half years for possession of the encyclopaedia—will all run concurrently.
He has already served one and a half years in prison on remand, and could in theory be freed in two years. But he is also wanted by the United States on charges of trying to set up a “terrorist training camp” in the state of Oregon. Those proceedings have been stayed by Abu Hamza’s appeal although under present law he could not in any case be extradited until his release from jail in Britain.
Passing sentence, Mr Justice Hughes made it clear that Abu Hamza’s opinions were not representative of the Muslim faith. “Whether you think you do or not I don’t know but it is perfectly plain to me that you do not,” he said.
“You spoke with considerable authority and apparent learning, to an audience who treated you as entitled and qualified by your learning to tell them what their Islamic duty was.
“You spoke also with great anger. It was directed at virtually every country and at a very large number of people whom you labelled as less than true believers.
“You are entitled to your views and in this country you are entitled to express them, but only up to the point where you incite murder or use language calculated to incite racial hatred. That, however, is what you did.
“You used your authority to legitimise anger and to lead your audiences to believe that it gave rise to a duty to murder. No-one can say now what damage your words may have caused . No-one can say whether audiences acted on your words. The potential for both direct and indirect damage is simply incalculable.
“You helped to create an atmosphere in which to kill has become regarded by some as not only a legitimate course of action but also a moral and religious duty in pursuit of perceived injustice.”
The judge said that he would take Abu Hamza’s previously good character into account and noted that the offences occurred before the “international temperature was raised” by the events of September 11, 2001. But he said that much of the evidence Abu Hamza gave during his period in the witness box was evasive.
He said: “The picture which is to be gathered from the video recordings of you at the time when you delivered these speeches is very different from the picture that you presented of yourself in the witness box.”
Abu Hamza looked straight at the judge as sentence was passed, and showed no reaction as he was led away to the holding cell below the court.
The court heard how in his sermons to audiences at the Finsbury Park mosque, North London, and in Luton, Blackburn and Whitechapel, East London, Abu Hamza preached “terrorism, homicidal violence and hatred”.
The mosque where he presided as imam for six years until 2002 has been linked to a string of terrorist suspects, including Zacarias Moussaoui, a September 11 plotter, and Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”.
When police raided the mosque in January 2003, they found an array of terrorist paraphernalia, including nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protective suits, blank firing weapons, a stun gun and a CS canister.
Abu Hamza continued to preach in the street outside the mosque every Friday until his arrest in August 2004. David Perry, prosecuting, said that the cleric used “the most dangerous weapons available—a great religion, Islam, his position as a civic leader and the power of words, his own words.”
Nine of Abu Hamza’s speeches were played to the jury during the trial—eight on video and one audio tape. Jurors were given nearly 600 A4 pages of transcripts to follow his frequently vitriolic sermons.
Mr Perry said: “Through his threatening, abusive and insulting words, he preached hatred against Jews as a racial and ethnic group—not limited to Zionist Jews, or Jews in Israel, if that would not be bad enough. He preached hatred unqualified of the Jews.”
Abu Hamza, who lost an eye and both arms in a mysterious incident abroad—he claims he was clearing landmines in Afghanistan—said that the case against him was politically motivated.
He argued that police had first arrested him in 1999 and taken away hundreds of tapes and the 11-volume encyclopaedia. He said that the tapes’ contents were very similar to those which formed the bulk of the prosecution’s case seven years later.
He alleged that he had held secret meetings with MI5 and Special Branch at which he was granted freedom to speech in return for keeping bloodshed off British soil. He also said that none of his sermons was intended to exhort his followers to commit acts of violence in Britain.
But those arguments were rejected by jurors who convicted him unanimously on the majority of the charges.
Shortly after sentencing, Muddassar Arani, who acted for Abu Hamza, said that he would be appealing against the convictions.
She described her client as a “prisoner of faith” and the victim of a campaign of vilification in the media. She said that the defence had been prevented from discussing the wider issues of Islam in the trial which Abu Hamza considered central to the case.
In a statement outside court, she said: “Abu Hamza considers himself to be a prisoner of faith. He is subject to slow martyrdom.
“The verdict has not been without hope, despite the massive media campaign against him.”
Ms Arani said that her client had been acquitted on several counts: “We cannot understand why the jury found him guilty of possession of the encyclopaedia when police returned it back to him in 1999.
“Unfortunately, the jury were not able to hear all of our evidence. We were precluded from presenting various evidence before the jury relating to world conflict where Muslim people have been oppressed around the world.”
The Muslim community was broadly in favour of the verdict, although some people drew comparison between his conviction and the acquittal of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, on two charges of inciting racial hatred last week.
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said: “Abu Hamza was an embarrassment to the Muslim community, both in what he did and what he said. Although time in prison is a very painful experience the Muslim reaction will be that he brought misery on himself.”
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission chairman, said: “Abu Hamza was demonised as the man with a hook in a pantomime-like fashion. This episode compared with what has happened in the past few days—Nick Griffin and the caricatures—has increased the perception in the Muslim community that freedom of speech is selective and access to justice is not blind.
“This is not to say that Abu Hamza was not a controversial figure within the Muslim community but it does suggest that controversial figures in one community might get treated differently than others.”
Lord Janner, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said: “I am very pleased with the verdict. If the sentence meant seven years that would be adequate and appropriate but as it is likely to mean about two years, it is totally inadequate.”