Briton held in Yemen is not Muslim

Briton held in Yemen is not Muslim

by Brian Whitaker, Rory Carroll and Martin Bright

Originally published in The Observer, 31 January 1999

TWO OF THE Britons facing terrorist charges in Aden are not Islamic fundamentalists - and one is not even a Muslim, a high-level Yemeni source told The Observer yesterday.

This astonishing claim deepens the mystery surrounding the alleged bomb plot and the motives of those behind it.

Yemeni guards who were told they were holding Islamic extremists were surprised to find that two of the men were not practising Muslims.

During interrogation, red-haired Muhsin Ghailan, 18, stepson of Abu Hamza, the Finsbury Park imam, had been asked his religion and replied 'None'.

Shortly afterwards he changed his mind and claimed he was a Muslim.

To settle the matter, according to the source, his interrogators decided to check if he was circumcised - and found he was not.

This, it is suggested, may be the basis of Ghailan's protests in court last Wednesday that he had been sexually abused.

Ghailan also amazed his guards by not knowing how many times a day a Muslim is supposed to pray or showing any interest in which wall of his cell faced Mecca.

At least two of the prisoners are said to have requested food during daytime at the height of Ramadan, when Muslims are supposed to fast.

Some guards were so surprised they assumed the men must be mercenaries, come to bomb Aden solely for the alleged pounds 1,200 fortnightly retainer offered by Abu Hassan, who led the kidnapping of British tourists in the Yemen last month.

Last night Abu Hamza confirmed that Ghailan was not a devout Muslim. 'When he was here he was not even wearing the proper Islamic dress,' he said. 'I wanted him to learn the Koran but he chose to learn about electronics instead. He's not a bad boy but I wanted him to be a cleric like me.'

Abu Hamza continued: 'I would have loved him if he had made a stand like Abu al-Hassan because his people are religiously motivated. They stand firm even if they get killed. This is why I don't even bother to defend my stepson. I have to concentrate on the principle. All the Yemenis and Egyptian young people are my sons.'

Another defendant with no known interest in fundamentalism is 26-year-old Malik Nasser Harhara, who has dual British and Yemeni nationality. Friends who knew him at Westminster University, where he studied information technology, have been astonished to find him linked to religious fanatics.

They remember him instead as a formidable drinker.

In Aden, the second day of the trial of the five Britons and an Algerian several times flared into confusion and fury yesterday. Suspects shouted they had been framed and pointed to a security force major as they man who led their alleged torture.

Apart from Ghalain and Malik Nassar, the accused Britons are Samad Ahmed, 21, and Shahid Butt, 33, from Birmingham, and Ghulam Hussein, 25, from Luton. They and the Algerian man were arrested on 24 December.

The court was told that Ghalain and two other Britons escaped a police road block in a car full of explosives by driving at high speed on the wrong side of the motorway.

A police officer said they hit a parked truck and fled on foot after abandoning their car in a busy street.

He walked from the witness stand to the dock and identified Ghailan as being the front-seat passenger. Relatives of the five other suspects shouted, 'Lies, lies', from the back of the court.

The police officer who testifed about the road block, Mohammad Ahmed Asha'bi, 26, appeared to taunt the suspects by grinning broadly.

Yesterday International Development Secretary Clare Short appealed to campaigners not to make 'crazy' statements. She made her intervention as Yemen's Prosecutor-General told the Aden court that some media reports were 'inaccurate and false' and could affect the course of justice.

The case was adjourned until tomorrow.