Why has it taken Britain eight years to extradite Abu Hamza?

British extradition proceedings against the militant cleric Abu Hamza, wanted in the US on terror charges, began in 2004. But only this week has an end to the legal process become visible.

By , Correspondent

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    In this January 2004 file photo, self-styled cleric Abu Hamza leads his followers in prayer in a street outside Finsbury Park Mosque, on the first anniversary of its closure by anti-terrorism police, London.
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Eight years after the first steps to extradite to the US one of Britain’s most notorious extremists, that legal saga is likely to come to an end next week should he fail in a last-ditch legal gambit to prevent his removal.

Yet even before the latest delay, legal deliberations over the fate of Abu Hamza – originally arrested in 2004 on a US extradition warrant for allegedly organizing a militant training camp in Oregon and assisting in kidnappings in Yemen – had long tested the patience of many, as the case wound its way through British and European Courts.

While not mentioning the case specifically, none other than the most senior judge in England and Wales suggested Thursday that he was as frustrated as anyone.

Recommended: Quiz: How much do you know about terrorism?

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said it was “a real source of fury” to him that cases should take as long as eight years to go through the courts as different grounds for appeal are attempted, and that there was a “great public interest” in allegations concerning terrorism being dealt with swiftly.

Human rights violation?

The comments by Lord Judge were welcomed by MPs as well as news outlets that have focused on the cost to the tax-payer of providing legal aid to Hamza and channeled anger at perceived foot-dragging by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled back in 2008 that extradition could not take place until it examined the case. 

Hamza had argued that his extradition to the US, where he could face a life sentence in a supermax prison if convicted, would run afoul of European human rights prohibitions against torture and ill treatment.

Julian Knowles, one of an elite group of barristers with the title of Queen's Counsel, says “a lot of the problems that have arisen here, and which have required litigation, are to do with just how savage the US sentencing system is and that gave the basis for Hamza to go to the European Court and say: ‘I will be held, if I am convicted, in solitary confinement, for the rest of my life in very harsh conditions, with probably no possibility of parole. I am a disabled man and have no arms and there will be very little granted to me to alleviate that.' ”

In April, the Strasbourg court ruled there would be "no violation" of the rights of Hamza and a number of others if they were put on trial in the US. And on Monday, the ECHR rejected the men's appeal, clearing the way for a possible end to the long legal saga.

After failing in Europe, Hamza is making a final stand in England, where judges issued an interim injunction Wednesday blocking the extradition and granting a court hearing for an appeal. Hamza’s legal team must show that there is some new and compelling factor that has not been already considered by previous court hearings.

Putting the case in perspective

Mr. Knowles says that while Hamza’s case is long, there have been longer extradition cases, including a French request that took 10 years.

“This case has taken a long time because the [ECHR] is very under resourced and has a backlog of cases, so by the time you go there you are building in up to a three-, four-year delay,” he says, adding that the extradition proceedings under English law also made the case a lengthy one.

Knowles also says that Hamza's eight-year saga is not a sign that Britain's extradition system is too weighted in favor of individuals fighting against their removal.  It's just the opposite, he says.

“The law is overwhelmingly in favor of the government seeking extradition. Very little has to be shown for the US to seek extradition, and in fact the controversy recently has been about whether it has been too easy for the US to get people from here as compared with if the UK was asking the US, where the hurdle is much higher.”

The sheer complexity of the Hamza case was also an issue.

The case's outcome is one that may have a lasting legacy in Europe.

The precedent set by the ECHR's ruling may turn out to be a green light across Europe for future extraditions to US supermax prisons, as the court officially has jurisdiction over 47 states across the continent (though Russia often ignores its rulings). The ruling is not apt to affect extradition to the US in death penalty cases, as Europe's opposition to capital punishment remains entrenched.

Symbolic importance

If Hamza's last-ditch effort fails, extradition is likely to quickly follow for a figure who has been one of the most striking encapsulations of what many Britons regard as the face of Al Qaeda inspired extremism.

Security experts emphasize the symbolic importance of the case of the hook-handed, one-eyed radical cleric, who took charge of London’s Finsbury Park Mosque in the 1990s and used it as a base to persuade young Muslims to take up the cause of holy war.

“In terms of his strategic relevance, he is no longer an active figure in terms of jihadi terrorism in general but he somehow represents the kind of threat that the UK has been facing since 2001,” says Tina Soria, an analyst specializing in counter-terrorism and Security and London’s Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

“His extradition would mark the end of one very important chapter in counter-terrorist narrative in the UK and how effective it has been in, hopefully, disrupting terrorist activities.”

“He represented a significant player in terms of radicalization, and the kind of threat that the UK was facing up until, maybe, 2007 and 2008 but we have seen an evolution in the terrorist threat and we of course now that kind of ideological message is equally circulating online.”

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