Page last updated at 05:55 GMT, Monday, 15 September 2008 06:55 UK

Melbourne jury convicts militants

Abdul Nacer Benbrika, file, ABC Australia
Abdul Nacer Benbrika has pleaded not guilty to all the charges

A Muslim cleric and five of his followers have been convicted of belonging to a terrorist group which allegedly planned attacks in Australia.

A jury in Melbourne found Abdul Nacer Benbrika guilty of leading the group.

The group was accused of planning to stage "violent jihad", targeting the prime minister and major sports events.

Four other men were acquitted. Charges are pending against two others, in what is being described as Australia's biggest ever terrorism trial.

During the long-running trial, prosecutors had argued that the group planned to attack an Australian rules football final that attracts nearly 100,000 people every year in Melbourne.

The men were also accused of plotting to assassinate former Prime Minister John Howard, who had authorised the deployment of Australian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

No attacks took place. All 12 men had pleaded not guilty.

Telephone 'bravado'

The cleric allegedly told his supporters that it was permissible to kill women, children and the elderly.

The defendants had denied the charges but were found guilty after the jury had deliberated for four weeks, after a seven-month trial.

They have yet to be sentenced and face life terms in prison, although an appeal is likely.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney said the case against them relied heavily on telephone conversations that were intercepted by the authorities.

Defence lawyers said it was the suspects' bravado that led them to discuss violent attacks in Melbourne but insisted they had no ability to carry them out.

One of the men's lawyers, Remy Ven de Wiel, told the court that Muslims in Australia had a sense of "powerlessness and political impotence" and resorted to empty talk. He reportedly said Benbrika "couldn't organise a booze-up in a brewery".

Four other Muslim men have been found not guilty of terrorism charges. The jury is still considering verdicts on another two defendants.

Iraq troops

Prosecutors at the Victorian Supreme Court said the aim of the plot was to force the Australian government to pull its troops out of Iraq.

Prosecutor Richard Maidment had told the trial the case was about "a home-grown terrorist organisation" and that Benbrika had urged the group to do "something big" to pressure the Australian government to pull its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The prosecutor also said material, including literature on how to make bombs and video tapes with messages from Osama Bin Laden, were seized from the group by police.

During the trial, Victorian Supreme Court Justice Bernard Bongiorno warned jurors that the testimony of at least one prosecution witness was unsafe and had told jurors not to let prejudices towards Muslims cloud their judgement when deciding the case.

He had earlier suspended the trial because the conditions in which the men were being detained were too onerous and could impede their ability to defend themselves.

Australia withdrew its 550 combat troops from Iraq in June 2008, but still has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Australia final 'was bomb target'
15 Apr 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian terror trial suspended
20 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
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