Radical cleric given life sentence over terror

A radical Muslim cleric has been convicted of terrorism charges in a military court and sentenced him in absentia to life in prison, Lebanese officials said today.

Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has Syrian citizenship, lived in Britain for 20 years where he headed the now-disbanded radical Islamist group al-Muhajiroun.

He left Britain for Lebanon in 2005 and the British government barred him from returning.

The Lebanese officials say Bakri is among 54 people sentenced today as part of ongoing trials of militants.

Bakri, who lives in the hotbed Sunni fundamentalist town of Tripoli, said he would never turn himself in. He claimed the charges are "lies and fabrications."

Bakri was convicted of "belonging to an armed group with the aim of carrying out terrorist acts and plotting to kill Lebanese soldiers."

The officials said he was sentenced to life because of his failure to attend court for trial.

Bakri said through his lawyer he was "shocked" to learn of the verdict.

"I never received any summons for a trial, or any arrest warrant," he said by telephone.

Bakri said his lawyer informed him he had 15 days to turn himself in and appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear why authorities have not arrested Bakri, who appears regularly on television and does not live in hiding. Security officials declined to comment.

Bakri became a focus of attention in the UK after he said he would not inform the police if he knew Muslims were planning attacks such as the July 7 bombings in London, which killed 56 people.

The cleric, who was also criticised in Britain for his fiery sermons, said his Muslim faith prevented him from reporting fellow Muslims to the police.

Britain later said it had barred Bakri from returning because his presence was not "conducive to the public good".

Bakri claims he is "retired" and spends his time preaching and teaching students and followers in Europe, Australia and Canada. He appears on Lebanese TV as a guest on political talk shows, including an appearance last week.

"Everyone knows my address, I go on TV and army intelligence interrogate me after each TV appearance. Now all of a sudden Omar Bakri is a fugitive who failed to appear in court. Why?" he asked.

In addition to Bakri, 53 other people - 20 of them in absentia - received sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment amid ongoing trials of militants who fought deadly clashes with the Lebanese army in 2007.