London mayoral hopeful Ken Livingstone has defended a Muslim cleric who has supported the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

Mr Livingstone was asked at a community meeting in north London why he had invited Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall while London mayor in 2004.

Dr Qawardi, who is banned from entering the US, has argued in the past that gays should be put to death and has also supported female genital mutilation and suicide bombings in Israel. Some of his statements have been filmed, while others were published as quotes on his personal website.

Mr Livingstone was heavily criticised in 2004 by gay rights campaigners and Jewish organisations for inviting him.

Speaking on Monday night in Barnet, he said: “You really shouldn’t smear a man you haven’t met. I met Sheikh Qaradawi.

“Am I to believe the Daily Mail rather than what I hear a man say with his own voice?

He added: “Here was Sheikh Qaradawi saying, not just to me in private but the audience he addressed in City Hall and then to [Jeremy] Paxman on Newsnight: No one should discriminate against a homosexual; No man should physically assault his wife; and Al-Qaeda, when it attacked New York, he turned round and appealed the Muslims around the world to donate blood to the Americans.”

Mr Livingstone’s comments were distributed by the office of Conservative MP and LGBT Tory patron Mike Freer, who said: “Ken’s colleagues in the Labour Party realised Qaradawi’s views were repugnant, that is why they refused him a visa when they were in government.

“The fact that Ken is still supporting him simply demonstrates his total lack of judgment.”

In return, Mr Livingstone accused his political opponents of being “desperate to talk about old news” to divert from “a huge attack on our public services and our quality of life”.

His spokesman said: ‘When Ken’s record on LGBT rights is compared to Boris Johnson’s the choice is clear: Ken introduced the first civil partnerships register, banned Sandals ads until they changed their policy on same sex couples, ensuring City Hall was one of most LGBT friendly employers in Britain, worked with Stonewall against homophobic bullying, fought Westminster Council when there was a threat to Pride flags in Soho and funded Pride. Boris Johnson has axed the annual Pride reception at City Hall, withdrawn London government from the Stonewall employer’s index and he cut funding for Soho Pride.”

After the 2004 invitation, campaigner Peter Tatchell withdrew his support for Mr Livingstone over the issue and along with an LGBT Muslim group, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Hindu and Sikh groups and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, wrote to the mayor expressing their anger at the meeting.

However, many other gay rights advocates, among them Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, the Lesbian and Gay Coalition Against Racism and activist Linda Bellos, supported Mr Livingstone, citing his “proud record” on human rights and social justice for lesbians and gay men.

The arguments raged for nearly a year, with Mr Livingstone insisting that as the mayor of the most diverse city in the world it was right for him to meet with members of faith groups even if he disagreed with their views.