Wed, Feb 04, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Australian cleric jailed on terror charges

BLUNDERING: The defense lawyer in the case described the defendants as young men learning about Islam from a self-style sheik who was highly incompetent

AFP , MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

A Muslim cleric and six followers were jailed for up to 15 years yesterday after being found guilty of forming an Australian terror cell that plotted bomb attacks designed to kill thousands.

“The organization fostered and encouraged its members to engage in violent jihad and to perform a terrorist act,” Judge Bernard Bongiorno told Victoria state’s Supreme Court after Australia’s biggest terror trial.

Firebrand cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 48, was jailed for 15 years, of which he must serve at least 12 years, while his followers received minimum terms of between four and seven-and-a-half years.

Algerian-born Benbrika had urged them to target large crowds at football matches or a train station to pressure the Australian government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the court heard.

Benbrika had said it was “permissible to kill women, children and the aged,” prosecutors said.

Material seized from the group included bomb-making instructions and video tapes with messages from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The men referred to themselves as mujahidin, or holy warriors, and considered violent jihad an integral part of their religious obligations, Bongiorno said.

Describing Benbrika as an “unskilled fanatic,” Bongiorno said he sought explosives training from an undercover police officer and “all evidence points to the conclusion that he maintains his position with respect to violent jihad.”

While the group had not chosen a specific target or carried out an attack, the judge said they had shown no remorse, and did not appear to have renounced their beliefs.

Remy Ven de Wiel, defending Benbrika, argued the defendants were not terrorists but young men learning about Islam from a self-styled sheikh who “couldn’t organize a booze-up in a brewery.”

He told the court his client was a braggart and did nothing more than talk about jihad, or holy war.

“The Muslims in Australia have a sense of powerlessness and political impotence and they express themselves,” Van de Wiel had told the jury.

After eight months of evidence the jurors found Benbrika guilty of directing a terrorist organization and the other six — Aimen Joud, 24, Fadl Sayadi, 28, Abdullah Merhi, 23, Ezzit Raad, 27, Ahmed Raad, 25 and Amer Haddara, 29 — of being members.

Ahmed Raad, Ezzit Raad and Joud were also found guilty of intentionally making funds available to a terrorist organization, while Joud and Benbrika were found guilty of possessing a CD connected with the preparation of a terrorist act.

Bongiorno jailed Joud and Ahmed Raad for a minimum seven-and-a-half years each, finding them most culpable after Benbrika. Sayadi will spend at least six years in prison, Ezzit Raad five years and nine months, Haddara four-and-a-half years and Merhi four years.

An eighth man, Izzydeen Atik, pleaded guilty in August 2007 and was jailed for five-and-a-half years.

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