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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 20:51 GMT
Eyewitness: Abu Hamza in court
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News at the Old Bailey

Abu Hamza (Image by court artist Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Abu Hamza: Denies the charges
Shuffling on his feet, and with a little smile as he was asked if he could speak up, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri took the stand at the Old Bailey.

Wearing a simple, sky blue tunic shirt and trousers, his thin-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose and secured by a chain, Mr Abu Hamza stood before the jury of eight men and four women having been described by his defence barrister, just an hour earlier, as the most frequently abused and reviled person in the country.

Mr Abu Hamza's appearance in the witness box, for his own defence against 15 charges, was never going to be a simple case of pleading not guilty.

It was a nuanced theological debate, a denouncement of Zionist politics, a defence of Jihad (Islamic struggle) - and it even lifted the lid on MI5's meetings with the cleric.

For the defence, Edward Fitzgerald QC's opening had been simple.

"Mr Hamza is probably the most frequently abused and ridiculed figure in this country," he said.

"Certain sections of the press delight in having a go at him. They call him 'Hook' and 'Hookie'; they run headlines like 'Hook off, Hookie' and 'Sling your hook'.

We do not fight for racism, or for nationalism - only for the sake of God
Abu Hamza al-Masri

"They may have treated him as guilty before this trial even began - but they haven't heard the evidence. It's not their decision - it's yours."

Mr Abu Hamza's defence began with an appeal to the jury to closely read his words in the context of Islam's holy and historic texts and, crucially, the interpretation that can be put upon them

So when he was appealing to people to fight - it was his case that he was calling on Muslims to defend their own people, rather than to fight for any reason.

The cleric said he wanted to explain the true meaning of "jihad". He said that it could be spiritual, meaning a duty to "struggle" for God's way of life without seeking personal or material reward.

But it could also be physical, if required. And this "jihad of the sword" was governed by strict rules.

"There are limits on what can be done in fighting," he said. "We fight for the cause of God. We do not kill women or children. We must not fight for the sake of fighting. We do not fight for racism, or for nationalism. Only for the sake of God."

He was asked about what he thought about Jews, a key element of the case against him. Were they to be hated and harmed?

Early life

Mr Abu Hamza said that Jews had a kinship with Muslims, both religions being descended from Abraham. But Israel and "Zionism" was another matter.

"I do not believe in Israel," he said. "In the Torah [Jewish holy text] it is not Israel. In the Bible it is not Israel. In the Koran it is not Israel. It is Palestine. It's an abomination to change its name."

Much of the day was taken up with such extremely complicated debate - but the court also heard, for the first time, many details of his early life.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, to a naval father and a headmistress mother, Mr Abu Hamza came to Britain in 1979 as a trainee civil engineer.

He quickly found an interest in Islam and the politics of the Middle East. In turn, as he spent more and more time in mosques, he met Mujahideen veterans from Afghanistan - Islamic fighters who had been funded by the US against the Soviet Union - who had come to London for artificial limb treatment.

He often translated for them at Harley Street -and this led to him taking his engineering skills to the war-ravaged country. "I put my belongings in a crate, I went there intending never to come back," he said.

Abu Hamza
The cleric has been vilified for his appearance, his defence lawyer said

It was here that he lost his hands, although he did not elaborate how. In 1995, after returning to the UK for treatment, he went to Bosnia where Muslims were involved in another conflict amid the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Before all of this happened, he had been just a plain old engineer. And one of his biggest contracts, he proudly told the court, had been a major construction project at Sandhurst, the Army's military academy in Berkshire.

He had retained the plans of the Sandhurst grounds as part of his engineering archives. When he was interviewed by police in 1989, he told the court, they had taken these papers away - but later returned them to him. They were still in his home, he said, when he was arrested prior to this trial.

"It's a very crucial document for any terrorist if he wants to do anything," he said.

And this got to the heart of his defence. Mr Abu Hamza argued that if he were such a threat to others, why had the security services not acted against him before?

Critically, he said the security services knew of his sermons long before his arrest, as they were monitoring him as part of a strategy widely dubbed "Londonistan", the idea of allowing radicals into Britain in return for ensuring that violence did not come here.

Unlawful sermons?

Mr Abu Hamza told the court that he had been interviewed on many occasions by members of MI5, police Special Branch and, on one occasion, investigators from France interested in his links with Algerian Islamist fighters.

Most of these meetings coincided with his rise to prominence in 1997 as the imam of Finsbury Park - but other Islamist figures were also talking to the security services, such was the climate.

"I received a phone call [from MI5] and I said: 'Should I bring a bag?'. They said they just wanted a discussion. We talked about suicide bombers. They said they were not recording, I did not need a solicitor, they just wanted to know about me.

"It was Londonistan. It was not Londonistan because of me. It was Londonistan because of government policy."

"Did they [any of the security services or police] ever say that your sermons were unlawful?" asked Mr Fitzgerald.

"No, they said 'you are walking on a tight rope'. They said that I was saying things they did not like, 'but you have freedom of speech'. 'We don't have to worry as long as we don't see blood on the streets.'"

The 47-year-old, from west London, denies 15 charges including soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. The case continues.



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