LONDON – A fundamentalist Muslim cleric facing possible treason charges said Tuesday that he left Britain (search) over the weekend and was in Lebanon (search) but planned to return within weeks unless the government says he is unwelcome.
Sheik Omar Bakri (search), the founder and spiritual leader of the now-disbanded radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun (search), has been identified by British authorities as one of three radical clerics who could face charges if their public remarks are deemed to have incited terrorism.
Al-Muhajiroun's successor organizations are to be banned in Britain under new anti-terror laws unveiled last week by Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) to root out Islamic extremists following the July 7 bombings and the failed attacks two weeks later. Officials are also considering reviving an old law that makes it possible to charge with treason those who praise acts of terrorism.
Bakri said al-Muhajiroun has ceased activities in Britain.
He told British Broadcasting Corp. radio he had left Britain on Saturday to avoid being used by the government to pressure British Muslims with new measures. Bakri, who has lived in Britain for 20 years, said he traveled to Lebanon and was staying with his mother.
"I'm going to return back after six weeks or four weeks, unless the British government (says) 'You are not welcome,"' the Syrian-born cleric said.
Bakri said he had denounced the July 7 attacks, which killed 56 people, including the four bombers.
"I did condemn the bombings taking place and killing innocent people in London, the way I condemn the killing of any innocent people around the world."
But he insisted he would not inform British police if he knew Muslims were planning an attack.
"Islam forbids me to report any Muslim ... to the British police," Bakri said. "My job (is) to stop him, to hold him with my Muslim brothers even if it costs me my life."
Bakri made similar remarks after the July 7 attacks and reportedly offered support for insurgents who attack troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A spokeswoman for Britain's attorney general said Sunday that prosecutors and police would look at Bakri's remarks to assess whether he could be charged with treason, incitement to treason, solicitation of murder or incitement to withhold information known to be of use to police.
Muslim leaders and civil libertarians have reacted angrily to the government's new anti-terror proposals, saying they threaten basic human rights in Britain.
Bakri, 46, came to Britain in 1985 after he was deported from Saudi Arabia. His children and grandchildren live in Britain.
Anjem Choudary, a former spokesman for al-Muhajiroun, told the Associated Press that Bakri left Britain "of his own free will."
"Provisionally, he left for a month. Obviously he will be monitoring the situation to determine if it is feasible to return," Choudary said. "I think he would return if the political situation changed in this country ... (but) it is incumbent upon Muslims to go to a place where they can propagate Islam, and now in Britain, Muslims are under siege.
"He loves Britain, and he is very grateful for what he receives, but at the end of the day he doesn't have allegiance to the queen or the British government," Choudary said. "He tried to share what he believes to be the superior ideology of Islam with the British public, but he never said he would enforce it upon them."