Jail imam sacked for spreading extremism

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The Independent Online

The imam at a young offenders' institution has been sacked for spreading the views of the extremist cleric Abu Hamza at a Friday prayer session.

Ahmed Bilal broadcast transcripts of Mr Hamza's "inflammatory" remarks during a BBC radio oration to young Muslims at the Aylesbury young offenders' institution days after the 11 September attacks, a prison source said.

Mr Bilal, who had been employed on a freelance basis since July, was told on 1 October, after a Prison Service investigation, that he could no longer work at the institution.

Mr Bilal said he had told the inmates that the 11 September atrocities were similar to the Oklahoma bombing, of which Muslim extremists were wrongly accused. In an interview with Radio 5 Live, Mr Bilal said he believed the 11 September terrorists should be brought to justice but that "innocent people should not suffer because of an allegation or an accusation".

Mr Hamza, the imam at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, was accused by a moderate Muslim leader yesterday of recruiting impressionable teenage boys and grooming them at secret study centres to be anti-Western hardliners.

Mr Hamza is the leader of the militant Supporters of Sharia group and claims to have been a mujahedin fighter, losing a hand and an eye in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan.

The director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, confirmed yesterday that a second imam had also been suspended from Feltham young offenders' institution for alleged comments about the 11 September attacks.

Abdul Rahman Qureshi was suspended a few weeks ago at the institution where the alleged shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had been an inmate in 1992 and 1994. They were not there at the same time, the Prison Service said.

A third imam was suspended at Belmarsh top security prison, in south-east London, for allegedly making anti-American or pro-Taliban remarks. The claims proved to be unfounded, but he has not been allowed to return to Belmarsh because he has not undergone new counter-terrorism checks brought in for all visiting ministers since the attacks. Mr Narey said a "reasonably tolerant" attitude had been adopted but that certain comments would be unacceptable.

He said he had huge confidence in his Muslim adviser, Maqsood Ahmed, who checks every imam who is appointed.

There are more than 4,000 Muslim prisoners in Britain, with 130 imams employed to serve the country's 138 jails. The imams are selected and vetted by the Muslim Prisoners' Commission before they are passed to the Prison Service.

Mr Narey told the BBC's Today programme. "We have made it very plain to all our imams there are certain comments about being critical of the USA, or in praise of what happened on 11 September, that are utterly unacceptable.

"Overwhelmingly, imams make a huge contribution. If someone converts to Islam or returns to their faith, it is more likely that when they are released they will go home to a stable community, be accepted by the mosque in that community, which means it is less likely they will commit crimes and that is very important," he added.

Zaki Badawi, the chairman of the Muslim Prisoners' Commission, said he was investigating the allegations against the imams. "They are not supposed to discuss politics. They are there to help the spiritual needs of the inmates. To talk about politics out of context is something we don't approve of at all," he said.

Abdul Haqq Baker, the chairman of the Brixton Mosque, where Mr Reid used to worship, said clerics from outside the prison system travelled the country enlisting the disaffected, ex-convicts and youngsters.

He said the clerics in London such as Abu Qatada and Mr Hamza were among those who preyed on new Muslims, youths and "those who have fallen out of the loop, some of them are ex-convicts who have no probation officers. They influence them with questions like 'do you know the true meaning of jihad?'"

After Friday prayers, he said: "Beware. It's teenagers who are being plucked. It's your sons." Mr Baker was speaking to a congregation reduced to half its average of 500 because of publicity about Mr Reid.