Jackson to visit Britain despite impending child molestation charges

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The Independent Online

Michael Jackson was expected to fly to Britain tonight on a promotional tour that will go ahead in spite of his forthcoming court appearance on child sex charges.

The pop singer was planning to attend a party held in his honour and hosted by his parents at his Neverland ranch in the foothills above Santa Barbara in California before flying across the Atlantic.

After he does some promotional work for his CD, Number Ones, which sold well in Britain despite being poorly received in the United States, Mr Jackson will take a short holiday in Europe.

He is due to appear in court in California on 16 January to face nine charges of abusing a 13-year-old boy at Neverland.Mr Jackson is accused of "lewd and lascivious acts", including "substantial sexual contact" with the boy, who is a cancer sufferer. He is also accused of plying the boy, who has not been publicly identified, with alcohol to facilitate the abuse.

He could go to prison for more than 20 years if found guilty and would be required under California law to register as a sex offender.

Many of Mr Jackson's celebrity friends, including the actress Elizabeth Taylor, are being asked to provide video testimonials in support of the singer. Mr Jackson is able to travel because he is free on £2m bail after his arrest that stemmed from a police raid on Neverland last month. But his decision to visit Britain before the court case is likely to provoke opposition from children's charities.

Mr Jackson, who has three children of his own, has denied the charges and his lawyer has claimed that the accusations are driven by "greed and revenge". Still, the singer's visit could be as controversial as that of Mike Tyson, the boxer, who was given a visa to enter Britain in May 2000 after he had served a prison sentence for rape.

Yesterday Mr Jackson's friends in Britain spoke out to defend him. Uri Geller, the psychic, said it was "inconceivable" that Mr Jackson was a child abuser. He told Sky News: "I pray he is innocent and that his lawyers will be able to prove that and that he will be able to prove that."

Mr Geller said he was sorry he had introduced Martin Bashir, the British journalist, to Mr Jackson. In Bashir's television documentary, the reclusive star said that he had "slept in a bed with many children," although he denied there was anything sexual in his actions.

Mr Jackson's comments helped lead to these child molestation charges, Mr Geller said. He said: "I think that Michael Jackson set himself up for such allegations.

"Sitting there with the children, and saying that he invites them to his bedroom was just awful, appalling mistakes. Michael simply doesn't understand that. He's absolutely naive, gullible."

Mr Geller said he had not spoken with Mr Jackson for many months. "In a way, Michael Jackson's friendship towards me must have tarnished," he said.

"I think that the friendship, I don't know if [it has] ended, but it's put on hold. From my side, I still consider myself a friend, and if he will call me, I will be more than happy to help him."

Mark Lester, 45, the former child actor, said the singer would also be welcome at his home in Cheltenham on his visit to Britain. Mr Lester met Mr Jackson 25 years ago while starring in the musical Oliver.

Mr Lester, an osteopath, allows his four children to stay with the pop singer at his Neverland ranch. Mr Jackson is also their godfather.He said: "It's a horrible thing to be accused of - I don't believe he'd do anything like that. I will see him when he comes over. He might come to Cheltenham and he would be welcome in my home. The only way forward to clear his name now is for a full investigation."

Mark Tami, Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside, said it was "inappropriate" for officials to allow Mr Jackson into the country, particularly when child welfare issues were headline news.