AN imam invited from Libya to preach in Bristol has been jailed after pleading guilty to indecently exposing himself in the city centre.
Bristol magistrates heard Abrahim Ghait, a young imam celebrated for his knowledge of the Koran, exposed himself to a 28-year-old woman in Castle Park as she made her way home from the gym.
He also admitted an allegation that he showed a 12-year-old girl in the park his genitals in a separate incident
.Magistrates sent the 25-year-old, who had come to Britain on a visit to preach during the Muslim festival Ramadan, to prison for six weeks.
But his friend Mohamed El Haddad, the head of the UK Arabic Society which invited the imam to Bristol, said he believed Ghait had only pleaded guilty in the hope that he would get a non-custodial sentence, which would have allowed him to go home to Libya where he had urgent business.
Mr El Haddad said there was no way the imam would have committed the acts, and that it would destroy his future and reputation.
Magistrates were told that Ghait is a famous imam in Libya, lauded for having memorised the entire Koran by the time he was 17 and being able to recite lengthy passages from memory.
They were told that he had been sponsored by the Bristol-based UK Arabic Society to come to the UK and preach at mosques in the city during Ramadan.
Ghait was staying at a flat on Croydon Street in Easton when the incidents happened.
Richard Levene, prosecuting, told the court that on August 13 a 28-year-old woman was walking through Castle Park on her own at 7.45pm, making her way home from the gym. It was alleged she saw Ghait standing behind a bin near a footbridge, and as she walked towards him he stepped out, trousers down and exposing himself.
The court was told that despite there being young children nearby he looked at the woman, then down to his exposed groin which he was holding, and then back to the woman, before she walked off and called the police.
Three days later, on August 16, it was alleged he performed a similar act in front of a 12-year-old girl.
The court heard that although Ghait could only speak Arabic, it was claimed he told the girl his genitalia was named "Lexie".
He was later arrested.
Ghait then appeared before magistrates at a hearing intended to vary his bail application before the case went to trial.
But instead he pleaded guilty to two charges under the Sexual Offences Act, of exposing his genitals with intention that someone would see them and be caused alarm or distress.
Sue Cameron, defending, said that Ghait had been through a huge culture shock in coming to the UK, and that he was from a very isolated background in the Libyan desert and didn't really know much about the world.
The court was told that Ghait was very concerned about people in Libya finding out.
His defence also argued that he had extremely bad piles and was due to have surgery at home.
Magistrates jailed Ghait for six weeks on each charge, with the sentences served at the same time.
He was also put on the Sex Offender Register for seven years.
Ghait was invited to Bristol through the UK Arabic Society to lead prayers during Ramadan for the Somali Muslim community at the St Paul's Settlement community centre on City Road.
Mr El Haddad and Mrs Cameron told the Evening Post that when Ghait first appeared before magistrates in Bristol on September 2, the bench had strongly indicated that a custodial sentence was unlikely.
Mr El Haddad said Ghait had only pleaded guilty to avoid having to wait in the UK for a trial, which had been due to take place in November, and in the hope of receiving a suspended sentence so he would not have to explain why he was away for so long.
He also wanted to get back for his brother's wedding and to study for a masters degree.
Mr El Haddad added: "The situation is unacceptable and I don't believe he did it.
"He only pleaded guilty because he wasn't expecting to go to prison, and because of the pressure on him to go back home quickly.
"There is no way that he would have done something like this. Do you think that a leader of a church would harm its community?
"It was a park, in the middle of the town, in the middle of the day.
"He was here leading people in prayer, it was in Ramadan when he was fasting, and he is not supposed to even look at a woman.
"He is a world-famous imam of a mosque in Libya and has spent 15 years learning the Koran.
"It is destroying the future of a key person. It is crazy, and I just can't believe it."
Ghait also visited Bristol to preach in 2007. He is one of 21 imams the UK Arabic Society, a charity, has brought to the UK from Libya in 2010 to preach.