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Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 13:58 UK

Australia terror trial raises concerns

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard (file)
Former PM John Howard was said to be a target of the group
Australia's biggest terrorism trial has ended with the convictions of seven Muslim men.

They were found guilty of belonging to an extremist organisation that was plotting a violent religious war, targeting the former Prime Minister John Howard and major sporting events.

After a marathon hearing in Melbourne that began in February, the jury decided that Abdul Nacer Benbrika, an Algerian-born cleric, was the mastermind of a brutal plan to force the Australian government to bring its troops back from Iraq in 2005.

Prosecutors claimed Benbrika wanted to inflict a Madrid-style bombing campaign on Melbourne, Australia's second most populous city.

Crucial to the investigation was the work of an undercover police officer, known only as SIO 39, who told the group he was from Turkey and could easily get hold of cheap explosives.

Intercepted telephone calls were also central to the case against the 48-year old sheikh and his followers. Hundreds of conversations were secretly recorded by state and federal police investigators and Australian security agents.

'Maximum damage'

"We want to die for jihad," Benbrika was heard saying.

Abdul Nacer Benbrika, file, ABC Australia
Lawyers say Benbrika talked the talk, but lacked means to stage the attack

"We do maximum damage, maximum damage. Damage their buildings with everything, and damage their lives just to show them. That's what we are waiting for."

The jury found Benbrika guilty of terrorism offences, including directing a militant cell.

Co-defendants Amer Haddara, Aimen Joud, Fadl Sayadi, Abdullah Merhi and brothers Ahmed and Ezzit Raad were found guilty of belonging to Benbrika's group.

Four other men - Hany Taha, Shoue Hammoud, and Bassam and Majed Raad - were acquitted and walked free from the Victorian Supreme Court flanked by lawyers and supporters.

After 22 days of deliberation, the jury failed to reach a verdict in the case of a 12th suspect, Shane Kent, 31, who was also charged with membership of a terrorist group. He is likely to face a re-trial.

All of the accused had denied the charges.

Net 'cast too wide'

Defence teams said their discussion of violent attacks was all talk and insisted they were not capable of carrying them out.

It troubles us that by association people will think that Muslims are prone to violence and acts of terrorism


Malcolm Thomas
Victoria Islamic Council

Lawyer Greg Barns, who represented one of the convicted men, has insisted that Australia's anti-terrorism legislation casts its net too wide and ensnares the innocent.

"The laws are too wide," Mr Barns said. "They have to be curtailed so that they deal with the root evil, which is trying to be dealt with, that is, terrorism, not simply to sweep up everyone in its wake."

Australia's federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has, however, welcomed the jury's verdicts.

"Successful prosecutions are of course important, vitally important, in sending a clear message to those who may be influenced by violent extremism," Mr McClelland told a news conference.

"The real prospect of conviction and imprisonment will hopefully open their eyes to what terrorism really is: nothing more than criminal behaviour at its most base and brutal level, aimed at innocent civilians as the target of choice."

Suspicion

Waleed Ali, from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Victoria's Monash University, also believes that this high-profile case may have dissuaded other young Australian Muslims from following a militant path.

"To a lot of people who may have been on the edge of radicalisation I think it probably did send some kind of message to them that the authorities were being vigilant, and so it may have caused some in that sort of position to back off," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

There is disquiet though in some circles that the conviction of seven Muslim men will again heap unwanted attention and suspicion on Australia's minority Islamic community.

"It troubles us that by association people will think that Muslims are prone to violence and acts of terrorism," said Malcolm Thomas from the Victoria Islamic Council.

"That's our concern and that's a perception which is brought about obviously by cases like this and activities overseas."

Australia's largest and longest terrorism case is not over. The Benbrika Seven have yet to be sentenced and face lengthy jail terms - and their lawyers have indicated that the men will appeal against their convictions.




SEE ALSO
Melbourne jury convicts militants
15 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia final 'was bomb target'
15 Apr 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian terror trial suspended
20 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Sydney terror accused deny guilt
31 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific


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