MI5 approved my preaching, Abu Hamza tells Old Bailey

Abu Hamza has begun a robust denial of claims that he urged his followers to murder non-believers. The 47-year-old preacher, who faces 15 charges including soliciting murder, entered the witness box at the Old Bailey yesterday to insist that his sermons were not intended to stir up racism and hatred among Muslim congregations across Britain.

During his first day of giving evidence, the radical Muslim cleric revealed that his preaching at locations including the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London had been tacitly approved by MI5. He said his non-religious work had once included overseeing building work at Sandhurst, the officer training college of the British Army, currently attended by Prince William and Prince Harry.

Dressed in a pale blue shalwar kameez, Mr Hamza told the court that in his first job as a civil engineer in 1989 he had been in charge of the large-scale project at Sandhurst and retained detailed drawings of its layout and perimeter fence.

The cleric said the plans could have been "crucial" to a terrorist and he had taken them with him to Afghanistan, where he was helping mujahedin fighters combating Soviet forces.

But he denied the diagrams were of anything other than professional interest to him, revealing that when British police had seized them from his west London home in 1999, they were returned after nine months.

As the jury was being shown an extract of the plans, Mr Hamza told the court: "It was quite a large project - an entry building, car parks for armoured vehicles, loading area for lorries, maintenance area, fuel station, short roads. It's a crucial document to any terrorist if he wanted to do anything. I took them all the way to Afghanistan, brought them back, the police took them in 1999 and gave them back to me. They're still there." He added that when he was arrested again in 2004, the documents were not even seized by the police.

The cleric denies soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred through inflammatory sermons and speeches between 1997 and 2000, in which he is heard to say it is permitted to kill a "kaffir" or non-believer "for any reason" and explain that Hitler was sent to persecute the Jews because they had been cursed by God.

Mr Hamza told the court that he had been "pushed" into studying Islam in the early 1980s by his first wife, an English woman, and had then become increasingly interested in the plight of Muslims around the world.

The court heard that he acted as a translator for mujahedin fighters injured in Afghanistan and receiving treatment in Harley Street in London, before then travelling to the country to oversee reconstruction work. He returned to Britain to become a preacher in 1996.

Under questioning from his lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald QC, the cleric told the court that he had been approached in 1997 by officers from MI5 who had indicated that his speeches did not break the law, but who had then modified that view in 2000.

Mr Hamza told the court: "I said, 'My sermons, is it a problem?' They said, 'Well, it's freedom of speech, you don't have to worry as long as we don't see blood on the streets.'

"Only in 2000 they said, 'We think you are walking on a tightrope'. They said there were some things that they don't like."

The preacher said he was also questioned by Special Branch: "They told me they had been watching me since 1994. I asked them myself about being vocal. He said it's freedom of speech."

Referring frequently to a copy of the Koran in front of him, Hamza explained his views on the tenets of Islam, claiming that his antipathy for Jews extended only to those who "use Judaism to pass off other ideas such as Zionism, globalisation and certain issues in a way that is harmful to the Muslim nation".

The grey-haired cleric, who is also accused of possessing a 10-volume Encyclopedia of Afghan Jihad which contains information likely to be useful to a terrorist, said he abhorred racism.

Mr Hamza, who was not wearing the false limbs he has used since he lost his hands in an accident, told the court: "If you are a scholar you will never distinguish between anyone of any colour."

Earlier, Mr Fitzgerald had warned the jury to ignore the past portrayal by the media of his client, whom he said was "probably the most frequently abused and ridiculed figure in this country".

The case continues.

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