British court OKs extradition of London imam

Abu Hamza al-Masri, convicted in Britain of soliciting murder and racial hatred, could face a life sentence in the US for supporting terrorist activities.

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A British court ruled Thursday that London Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri, Britain's highest profile Muslim radical, could be extradited to the US to face charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and providing material support to terrorists. Although Britain is likely to comply, the US bid to extradite Mr. al-Masri still faces several challenges, namely concerns about his potential prison conditions in the US and whether such a move might violate his human rights.

Al-Masri, the firebrand Muslim cleric convicted last year in Britain of soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred, faces extradition to the US on 11 terrorism-related charges. That process, however, could take time, reports the British Broadcast Corporation.

City of Westminster Magistrates Court approved the extradition, but the decision has to be ratified by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. Senior District Judge Timothy Workman ruled that Abu Hamza (al-Masri), who preached at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, had lost his legal arguments. The judge said he would send the matter to the Secretary of State for a decision on whether the former civil engineering student should be extradited.

The New York Sun writes that the British home secretary's assent to extradition is thought to be a formality. Upon her approval, al-Masri can be sent to America to face charges filed against him in New York in 2004.

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Mr. Hamza (al-Masri) is charged with sending an associate to collect funds from sympathetic Muslims in New York that were used to send two co-conspirators to Afghanistan to recruit a "front line commander" to direct acts of violent jihad in the West. ... The terrorism charges against Mr. Hamza relate to a period in late 1999 and early 2000 in Bly, Ore., when he is accused of trying to set up camps to train youths to commit violent acts of jihad and terrorism. In April 2004 the cleric was the subject of an 11-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York. According to [then US Attorney General John] Ashcroft, between December 23 and 29, 1998, Mr. Hamza plotted to take Westerners hostage in Yemen and provided a satellite telephone to members of the Islamic Army of Aden, who carried out the kidnapping.

The Sun notes that four of the hostages, three Britons and an Australian, were killed when Yemeni forces stormed the kidnappers' hideout. A key point of contention in the extradition hearings has been whether al-Masri's incarceration in the US might violate his human rights, reports The Daily Telegraph (London).

Judge Workman was told that Hamza was likely to be housed in a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where his treatment would breach the Human Rights Act. Hamza was said to be in poor health with diabetes, raised blood pressure, the loss of sight in his right eye, poor vision in the left and the effects of the amputation of both forearms. A report from a former chief judge of the US Court of Appeals said supermax prisoners were "locked down for 23 hours a day in small cells between 48 and 80 sq ft."

The Independent (London) adds that if convicted of charges in the US, al-Masri could be facing a 99-year prison sentence in a "supermax" facility. But Workman rejected those arguments, as he does not foresee al-Masri being held in such a prison indefinitely.

Judge Workman said that to hold Hamza... in such a regime for an indefinite period could breach his human rights, but he added: "I am satisfied that the defendant would not be detained in these conditions indefinitely, that his undoubted ill health and physical disabilities would be considered and, at worst, he would only be accommodated in these conditions for a relatively short period of time. "Whilst I find these conditions offensive to my sense of propriety in dealing with prisoners, I cannot conclude that in the short term the incarceration in a 'supermax' prison would be incompatible with his Article 3 rights."

CNN reports that extradition could be several months away, as he cannot be sent to the US until all his avenues of appeal under British law are exhausted. If he is extradited, his US trial would interrupt the seven-year prison term he is currently serving in Britain. If he is convicted, his US sentence would begin after his British sentence is completed.

A British judge last year sentenced al-Masri to seven years for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. The court convicted the cleric of possessing items including a 10-volume "encyclopedia" of Afghani jihad, which the prosecutor described as "a manual for terrorism;" the texts discussed how to make explosives, explained assassination methods, and detailed the best means of attack. The cleric was also convicted of possessing video and audio recordings which prosecutors said he intended to distribute to stir up racial hatred. Both non-Muslims and Muslims have condemned al-Masri's preaching, which include praising the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, calling al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a hero, and describing the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster as punishment from Allah because the astronauts were Christian, Hindu and Jewish.

CNN adds that al-Masri's followers include Richard Reid, who was convicted of trying to light a bomb in his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to be charged in the US in connection with the September 11 attacks. The Guardian notes that for all his condemnations of the US and the West, al-Masri's "brazenness also helped - with his knowledge or otherwise - the [British] intelligence services."

Following his conviction last year, it emerged he had repeatedly met MI5 and Special Branch officers. A former MI5 agent who infiltrated the Finsbury Park mosque said Hamza was allowed to operate by the security services as long as he did not threaten Britain's national security. Both the agent and a close associate of Hamza claimed the cleric was an unwitting informant on other extremists.

The Guardian adds that al-Masri claims he is not a man of violence, but rather he is solely a political advocate.

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