Lebanon: Cleric Sentenced to Life in Absentia

BEIRUT-- A Lebanese military court on Friday convicted a radical Muslim cleric of terrorism charges and sentenced him in absentia to life in prison, judicial officials said.

Omar Bakri Mohammed, who holds Syrian and Lebanese citizenship, lived in Britain for 20 years where he headed the now-disbanded radical Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. He left Britain for Lebanon in 2005 and the British government barred him from returning.

Lebanese officials said Bakri was among 54 people sentenced Friday as part of ongoing trials of militants who fought deadly clashes with the Lebanese army in 2007. Bakri was convicted of "belonging to an armed group with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts and plotting to kill Lebanese soldiers."

The officials said Bakri was sentenced to life because of his failure to show up in court for his trial. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Bakri, who lives in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalists, said he was "shocked" to learn of the verdict through his lawyer Friday.

"I never received any summons for a trial, or any arrest warrant," he told The Associated Press over the telephone. He said the charges were "lies and fabrications" and vowed never to turn himself in.

Bakri said his lawyer informed him he had 15 days to turn himself in and appeal the ruling.
It was not immediately clear why authorities have not arrested Bakri, who appears regularly on television and does not live in hiding. Security officials declined to comment.

Bakri became a focus of British attention after he said he would not inform the police if he knew Muslims were planning attacks such as the July 7, 2005 bombings in London that killed 56 people.

The cleric, who also has been criticized in Britain for his fiery sermons, said his Muslim faith prevented him from reporting fellow Muslims to the British police.
Britain later said it had barred Bakri from returning to that country because his presence was not "conducive to public good."

Bakri says he is now "retired" and spends his time preaching and teaching students and followers in Europe, Australia and Canada. He appears often on local Lebanese, TV stations as a guest on political talk shows, including an appearance last week.

"Everyone knows my address, I go on TV and army intelligence interrogate me after each TV appearance. Now all of a sudden Omar Bakri is a fugitive who failed to appear in court. Why?" he asked.

In addition to Bakri, 53 other people -- 20 of them in absentia -- received sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment.