Iraqi-Born Islamist Cleric in Norway Terror Trial

Oslo, Norway - An Iraqi-born cleric pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of making death threats against politicians and encouraging suicide bombings.

Prosecutors said Mullah Krekar, a 55-year-old Islamist who came to Norway as a refugee in 1991, faces several years in prison if found guilty by Oslo District Court.

Since his arrival, Krekar has made frequent trips to Iraq where in 2001 he founded the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam, a group suspected of organizing suicide bombings against coalition forces in Iraq, and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and other nations.

In 2005, a Norwegian court declared Krekar a national security threat and ordered him deported, but later postponed the move because of concerns he could face execution or torture in Iraq.

In June 2010, Krekar said at a news conference organized by the foreign press club in Oslo that if he were deported to Iraq and killed, Norwegian officials would "pay with their lives," according to a transcript included in the indictment presented in court.

"If I die it will be the beginning of killings," he said, according to the transcript.

Prosecutor Marit Bakkevig said Krekar had violated Norwegian terror laws by "threatening to commit murder for the purpose of creating fear in the society," which carries a maximum 12-year sentence. "The statements appear as persistent threats," she told the court.

Krekar is also charged with trying to force a reversal of the deportation order by threatening officials, or obstructing the government from performing its duties, with a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

In addition, he has allegedly threatened several people on various websites, including three Kurds living in Norway, the prosecution said.

In 2009, on NBC's news program "The Wanted," Krekar said that America had deserved the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and condoned suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq. Because the interviews were conducted in Norway, he is being tried in the Scandinavian country for these statements.

By condoning suicide bombings, he was charged with "publicly encouraging illegal actions," which has a maximum eight-year sentence.

The prosecution told the court that Norwegian security police initiated the investigation of Krekar after the NBC interviews.

During the proceedings, court officials were shown several TV clips of Krekar, including the NBC program, causing the bearded cleric to occasionally smile and at times shake his head. The clips were not visible to the public.

Krekar has said that he stands by the statements he made to the journalists. But his lawyer, Brynjar Meling, said he is discussing with Bakkevig about modifying how Krekar's alleged threats are described in the transcripts. "Some of the translations are absolutely wrong," Meling told The Associated Press.

Meling insists Krekar has not broken the law.

"It should not be looked upon as threats," Meling said.

Meling said this is "a test case" for drawing the line between Norwegian terror laws and freedom of speech.

The gray-robed Krekar appeared calm, making notes during the first day of the trial, expected to last three weeks.

Krekar, who told the court he lives at a secret address and has no job, has denied links to al-Qaida and says he no longer leads Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaida-linked group, which has vowed to set up a conservative Islamic state in northern Iraq. Its members have trained in Afghanistan and provided safe haven to al-Qaida members fleeing the U.S. invasion there.