European court ends era of safe harbor for Abu Hamza

The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that extraditing radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza to the US would not violate his rights and is therefore permissible.

Alastair Grant/AP
In this March 2003 file photo, radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza prays in a street outside his Mosque in north London. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, April 10, that it would be legal for Britain to extradite an Egyptian-born radical Muslim cleric and five other terror suspects to the United States.

Britain has been trying to extradite radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza to the US since 2008, and now it probably can.

Defying stereotypes of it in the British press as soft, the European Court of Human Rights today agreed that Mr. Hamza, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, and four others could be extradited to the US to face charges of planning a terror training camp in Oregon and kidnapping Western tourists in Yemen, among other crimes.

The European court, to which Britain is a signatory, ruled unanimously that imprisonment in the US “supermax” facility in Colorado would not violate the men's human rights, saying “if the applicants were convicted as charged, the US authorities would be justified in considering them a significant security risk and in imposing strict limitations on their ability to communicate with the outside world.”

The court added that inmates in the ADX prison, as it is known, had access to radio, TV, social visits, hobbies, and may be better treated than in some European jails.

Hamza gained British notoriety as the imam of the Finsbury Park mosque who rejoiced in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. The Egyptian-born imam, who has one eye and an artificial right arm because of injuries incurred while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, openly called for violent jihad, and has been serving time on charges of incitement to murder and hate crimes.

US officials describe him as a “terrorist facilitator with a global reach." In 2004, he was arrested by UK authorities after an indictment from the US.

The European court blocked Hamza’s extradition in 2008 just days before he was scheduled to leave. That decision inflamed British opinion and led to calls for greater British sovereignty, and later for the Cameron government to pull out of the Strasbourg, France-based body that has often ruled against extradition when not convinced a prisoner will not face torture or ill treatment after transfer.

The British press has often portrayed the European court as a set of pointy-headed do-gooders who want to mollycoddle terrorists. Some of that sentiment was evident in London's Daily Mail today, which wrote that the court’s “rag tag judges – many of whom have no judicial experience and are simply political appointments, academics or human rights enthusiasts – are also extremely adept at … making the law entirely as they see fit.”

Mark Ellis, executive director of the London-based International Bar Association, took issue with this characterization, saying the court’s judges are “serious and substantive from a legal point of view,” and argued the key issue is “whether you want to have a court where human rights issues are heard, or not.”

“I understand the frustrations of UK citizens who look at a situation where the prima facie evidence is there. [Hamza] looks guilty,” Mr. Ellis adds. “But the job of the court is to ensure that principles are upheld. That’s never a point that is going to be very popular, but it is necessary in a system of law. And Britain has signed onto the court.”

For years, Hamza’s legal team skillfully worked the British court system, to the dismay of British government officials, and defeated efforts to strip him of his British citizenship and make him a stateless person, which would have made him easier to extradite.

However, in 2008, Hamza appeared to have run out the clock on appeals – until the European court said it would investigate his case.

As an angry imam, Hamza benefited from the open climate in London before Sept. 11, when it was possible to call for jihad without punishment because of guarantees of religious free speech. With a large, traditional South Asian and Muslim population, the British capital became known as “Londonistan” and in some ways was the freest place in the world for an Islamic cleric to air his grievances about the turmoil in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

British officials have since cracked down, creating laws against hate speech that promotes violence and attempting to make extradition easier.

While some commentators today argued that the ECHR bent to political pressure from the US and UK, Ellis roundly dismissed the idea. "This court doesn't look to any outside pressure," he says.

British Home Secretary Theresa May congratulated the court for its decision and vowed to extradite the five prisoners. The prisoners can make a final appeal to a Grand Court in Europe, though few such appeals are heard. 

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