updated 2/3/2009 4:29:11 AM ET 2009-02-03T09:29:11

The leader of an Australian terrorist cell that prosecutors said plotted to attack major sporting events in a bid to kill thousands of people was imprisoned Tuesday for at least 12 years.

Algerian-born cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, 48, was one of seven men convicted by a jury last September in connection with what prosecutors said was Australia's largest terrorist conspiracy.

Prosecutors said Benbrika urged his followers to launch an attack to force the Australian government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. He told them that an attack needed to kill at least 1,000 people to achieve this aim, and that it was permissible to kill women, children and the elderly.

No attack took place, but prosecutors said the group, based in Australia's second-largest city of Melbourne, had identified railway stations and sports fields as possible targets.

"The group may have indeed only have been an embryonic terrorist organization ... but the organization fostered and encouraged its members to engage in violent jihad and to perform a terrorist act," Victoria state Supreme Court Justice Bernard Bongiorno said Tuesday during the two-hour sentencing hearing.

The court sentenced Benbrika to 15 years on a charge of directing the activities of a terrorist organization, seven years for being a member of a terrorist organization and five years for possessing a compact disc connected with the preparation of a terrorist act.

The judge ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, with a non-parole period of 12 years. Bongiorno also sentenced six of Benbrika's followers on Tuesday to prison terms ranging from four to seven and a half years for their part in the group.

Attack plots
During the seven-month trial, prosecutors alleged that between 2004 and 2005, the group talked about attacking a football final that attracts close to 100,000 people each year, or the Formula One Grand Prix race held annually in the southern city.

Benbrika had faced a total maximum sentence of 50 years in prison. But in his sentencing report, the judge said he imposed a lighter sentence because he didn't believe Benbrika's group had actually picked out specific targets for their attacks. The validity of a key witness who testified about the alleged football plot could not be trusted, as he was "a liar, a cheat and a fraudster," wrote Bongiorno.

Because of that, the judge said the witness' testimony would not be considered for sentencing purposes. Had he believed the witness, Bongiorno said the sentences would have been much tougher.

However, the judge also emphasized the severity of the danger posed by Benbrika's group, writing that its mere existence posed "a significant threat that a terrorist act would be or would have, by now, been committed ... in Melbourne."

More on: Australia | Terrorism

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