|Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed (Peter Nicholls/The Times) |
John Prescott today sent a personal message to the extremist cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed: "Enjoy your holiday... make it a long one".
The Deputy Prime Minister, on the second day of his annual holiday cover for Tony Blair, spoke out after it emerged that the preacher - who left Britain for Lebanon on Saturday - had informed reporters that he was merely taking a break.
Asked about the radical Islamist's suggestion that if he was not welcome in England he would not return, Mr Prescott told a news conference in London: "Good."
He was then asked whether Mr Bakri Mohammed was welcome here, and replied: "I don't think he is welcome by many people in this country, is he?
"But at the moment he has the right to come in and out. That is the circumstances at present and we have to change situations in this country by law. It's a democracy, not a dictatorship, for God's sake. I just say ‘Enjoy your holiday, make it a long one."'
Mr Bakri Mohammed told the BBC that he had travelled to Lebanon of his own free will to visit family at the weekend but planned to return to his home in north London in four weeks.
"I decided myself to go holiday, for four, five weeks and stay with my mother back home," he said. "But anyway, I am going to return back after six or four weeks, unless the Government says I am not welcome."
Sheikh Bakri Mohammed said that he flew from Heathrow to Beirut on Middle East Airlines Flight 202 on Saturday afternoon because he believes that the Government is using his name and reputation to alienate Britain's Muslim community.
"I don't want the British Government to keep using Omar Bakri Mohammed: because of him, because of some cleric we will make a new set of rules and put pressure on the Muslim community," he said.
In the telephone interview, Mr Bakri Mohammed said that he would return to Britain to clear his reputation, adding that he had never committed a crime. But the cleric reiterated his belief that it would be "against Islam" for him to inform the police of any terrorist attacks that he knew were being planned in Britain.
"I say publicly, Islam forbids me to report any Muslims, even if he is oppressive, you see, to the British police," he said. "Islam forbid me, that don't mean I know about crime."
Scotland Yard is understood to have been considering bringing charges against Sheikh Bakri Mohammed, who is the leader of the officially disbanded al-Muhajiroun group, because of speeches he has made in support of jihad against Britain.
On Friday, Tony Blair said that belonging to al-Muhajiroun or Hizb ut-Tahrir, another radical Islamic organisation, would become a crime under new rules designed to limit the freedom of extremists to incite violence.
Last night Anjem Choudary, a close associate of Sheikh Bakri Mohammed, told the The Times: "The sheikh has left the country and I don't think he will come back. He has said that he is willing to destroy his British documents."
If he does try to return, security sources suggested last night that he would be likely to be arrested. The Crown Prosecution Service has been studying a file on the 47-year-old Syrian-born radical to assess whether to bring charges over his lectures to young Muslims that they should "fight Jihad" against Britain. He has described the July 7 bombers as "the fabulous four."
Richard Ford, the Times home correspondent, said that Mr Bakri Mohammed's holiday had no effect on his immigration status. He has indefinite leave to remain in the UK and that means he is free to come and go in and out of the country.
The question of whether the British Government would be willing to let him back in was however slightly different, Mr Ford added.
"Any country can refuse entry to someone whose behaviour they feel is not conducive to the public good," he said.
"Under current immigration rules, 'not conducive to the public good' is defined as being a threat to national security, a threat to public order and the rule of law or a threat to Britain's good relations with another country. Those suspected of war crimes can also be refused entry.
"Now I don't think they will stop Sheikh Bakri Mohammed on those grounds. But this is where it gets complicated. The Government announced a new set of rules on Friday and a two-week consultation period before they expand new categories to deport people and stop others entering the country. These new categories are known as 'unacceptable behaviours'. "These 'unacceptable behaviours' include fomenting terrorism, justifying or glorifying terrorism, or fostering hatred between communities. They also allow the Government to deport or ban those who express views that the Government believes to be 'extremist'.
"So this all depends on when the Government decides to introduce its new rules. Theoretically, if the rules do not require new legislation, then if Sheikh returns not this weekend but next weekend or the weekend after next, then the he may not be allowed back in."
Sheikh Bakri Mohammed, a father of seven, has lived in Britain since 1982. He is understood to have received tens of thousands of pounds in benefits payments and told followers to claim as much as they can while doing all that they can to allegedly to "wage war" against Britain.
He has no right of appeal if the Government reverses his indefinite leave to remain, but he can ask for a judicial review and challenge any decision through the courts, Mr Ford added. No change to his immigration status would affect his family, who live in the UK.
Syrian officials have given warning that he could face prosecution if he attempts to return to his homeland.
In the past, his website has boasted of sending British recruits to fight in Afghanistan and other conflicts such as Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya but stopped once anti-terror laws were brought in after the September 11 attacks which could have seen him risk prosecution.
Mr Choudray said: "He is considering his Islamic duties in Lebanon and he is looking to go on to one of the Emirate countries. I think you should be hearing from him soon.
"He has nothing to come back for and cannot preach freely under the regime in this country. He has never had a British passport and he was always talking about going abroad. He has dual nationality, Syrian and Lebanese, so has no need for British documents.
"He received his Lebanese passport last week and flew out of Heathrow on Saturday. His wife and children are still here. He has two adult sons, who will look after the family. I don't know if the family will join him."
"He is a scholar who is respected by people around the world. He will be welcomed by Muslims who want to here him. I think he will be visiting the UAE next month."
Mr Choudray said that Sheikh Bakri Mohammed had been "demonised for many years" in Britain. He added: "It is an obligation on Muslims that, if they cannot fulfil their Islamic duties in a certain place then they need to . . . emigrate to a place where they can, where their lives and their religion is protected."
Islamist cleric plans return to UK
James Sturcke and agencies
Tuesday August 9, 2005
Omar Bakri Mohammed. Photograph: PA
Radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed today insisted he would return to Britain from Lebanon as it emerged the Home Office could introduce anti-terrror proposals within weeks that would block his entry.
The 45-year-old Syrian-born cleric left London on Saturday, the day after Tony Blair revealed plans to ban "successor organisations" to al-Muhajiroun, which Mr Bakri set up in 1996, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, of which he was also a founder in Britain.
Mr Bakri said today he had gone to Lebanon to visit family but would return to Britain in four weeks. Since he left for Beirut, it has emerged that the director of public prosecutions is to examine the potential for charging him for existing offences including incitement to treason, though the lord chancellor today said such a course was "extraordinarily unlikely".
Mr Bakri had earlier told the BBC he would return to Britain to stand trial if he faced such charges. "There is no treason. I am not a British subject and I never committed any form of crime whatsoever," he told the FiveLive breakfast show.
"If there is a crime in the UK and my name has been mentioned, I will be the first one to return, challenge all these allegations the way that I challenge always the distortions of the British tabloid newspapers.
"I am going to return back in four weeks unless the government say we are not welcome, because my family is in the UK."
It is understood, however, that immigration rules may be changed swiftly enough to bar Mr Bakri from Britain should he attempt to return.
Last week the Home Office began a two-week consultation process on expanding the circumstances in which people could be deported or excluded from the UK.
It set out a list of "unacceptable behaviours" including preaching to foment, justify or glorify terrorism. A government source told the Press Association it was possible the new rules could be brought into effect within that time.
A Home Office spokeswoman said she could not comment on Mr Bakri's case but the introduction of the new rules was not subject to parliamentary protocols.
Mr Bakri, who sparked outrage last week when he said he would not inform police if he knew about Muslims plotting bomb attacks in Britain, said he had left the UK openly from Heathrow airport on a Lebanese Airlines flight.
"It was in the middle of the day; I went out publicly with my big beard, with my stick - Omar Bakri Mohammed. I gave them my passport; they checked it for me," he said.
The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who is standing in while Mr Blair is on holiday, said there was no reason why Mr Bakri should have been stopped by immigration officials.
"I don't think he's committed any offence under present regulations to prevent him leaving," Mr Prescott told a Downing Street press conference. "I just say 'Enjoy your holiday - make it a long one'."
Labour MP Andrew Dismore, who has campaigned for Mr Bakri to be deported, said Britain was better off without him.
"I think we are safer with him out of the country," he told the BBC's Today programme. "He has been a malign influence for getting on for 20 years in this country in the way that he has gone out of his way to recruit young British Muslims.
"I think he forgets that he originally came to the UK as a refugee fleeing from the Middle East so if it is safe for him to go back on holiday, maybe it is safe for him to stay back there permanently."
Mr Bakri has indefinite leave to remain in Britain but this will lapse if he stays away for more than two years.
Anjem Choudary, a spokesman for Mr Bakri and the former UK head of al-Muhajiroun, which disbanded itself last year, defended the cleric and his beliefs.
"The fact is he contributed enormously to this country both as a taxpayer when he was running his businesses here, but, more importantly, there are thousands of youths who have their understanding of Islam because of what the sheikh taught them," he told the BBC.
Mr Bakri arrived in Britain in 1986 after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia for his extreme views and set up the British branch of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tarhrir. He grabbed his first headlines during the 1991 Gulf war when he called for the murder of the then prime minister, John Major.
He has issued a string of inflammatory pronouncements in the past 15 years and claims to have given religious instruction to two Britons who went to Israel on a suicide bombing mission that killed four people. He is alleged to have said afterwards that they "will now go to paradise".
He described last month's suicide bomb attacks on London as the fault of the British people and accused Mr Blair and those who voted him into office of helping to create a "cycle of bloodshed".
Some of his most controversial pronouncements came last week when he told a journalist that he would not inform the police if he knew that a Muslim group was planning to carry out another attack on London.
"I have said publicly, on the record, if I knew somebody was going to attack here, I will hold him, I will call the Muslims to hold him," he told Channel 4 News. "I would never tell the police. I am not working for the police. I would never, ever tell the police about any Muslim. It is God-forbidden. It is a matter of religious obligation."
Al-Muhajiroun, which Mr Bakri set up when he split from Hizb ut-Tahrir, was disbanded in October 2004 for what the cleric claimed were the interests of Muslim unity. He is now head of one of the "successor organisations" referred to by Mr Blair last week as he set out a 12-point plan to combat extremism.
His new group, the Saviour Sect - Ahl ul-Sunnah wal Jammah - came to public attention when members disrupted a Muslim Council of Britain press conference in April.