U.S. court fight starts for radical cleric sent from Britain

NEW YORK Sat Oct 6, 2012 8:28pm EDT

1 of 9. Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri is seen in this courtroom sketch during a court appearance in Manhattan Federal Court in New York October 6, 2012. Abu Hamza appeared before a federal judge in New York on Saturday after Britain extradited the one-eyed radical preacher to the United States to face trial on terrorism charges.

Credit: Reuters/Jane Rosenberg

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - One-eyed radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri made his first appearance in federal court in New York on Saturday after Britain extradited him to the United States to face trial and a potential life sentence on terrorism charges.

The Egyptian-born Hamza, 54, entered U.S. District Court in Manhattan after being refused the prosthetics - including his signature metal hook - that he wears because of his missing forearms.

Hamza is accused by Washington of supporting al Qaeda, aiding a kidnapping in Yemen and plotting to open a training camp for militants in the United States.

He was flown late on Friday to the United States along with four other men also wanted on U.S. terrorism charges.

Hamza is missing both his hands and an eye, injuries he says he sustained while living in Afghanistan in the 1980s and carrying out humanitarian work. Authorities say he was fighting for the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union.

Dressed in blue prison garb, Hamza spoke only once during Saturday's 10-minute court hearing before Magistrate Judge Frank Maas. Through his court-appointed lawyer, Hamza asked that his prosthetics be returned to him and that he receive proper medical attention. It was not clear why authorities did not allow him the prosthetics in court.

He will not be asked to enter a plea until he returns to court on Tuesday.

Under the terms of British and European court rulings authorizing the extradition, the five suspects must be tried in U.S. civilian courts and federal prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty.

U.S. officials said they were pleased Hamza and the other men would finally answer to the long-standing charges.

The extradition "is a watershed moment in our nation's efforts to eradicate terrorism," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

Saudi native Khalid al-Fawwaz, 50, and Egyptian Adel Abdul Bary, 52, also appeared in federal court in New York on Saturday. Both pleaded not guilty to charges they and others were involved in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

Also on Saturday, British citizens Babar Ahmad, 38, and Syed Talha Ahsan, 33, charged with supporting al Qaeda and other militant groups by operating various websites promoting Islamic holy war, pleaded not guilty before a federal judge in New Haven, Connecticut, court records showed.

EIGHT-YEAR BATTLE

Born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, Hamza moved to Britain as an engineering student in the 1970s, married a British woman and once worked as a doorman at discos in London.

A fiery anti-Western speaker, he is said to have inspired some of the world's most high-profile militants, including Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the accused September 11 conspirators.

The cleric was once a preacher at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, but was later jailed in Britain for inciting murder and racial hatred.

After being held on the U.S. extradition warrant, he was jailed by a British court in 2006 for inciting Muslims to kill Jews and non-believers, based on extracts of speeches he had given years earlier.

Hamza was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in April 2004. He is accused of involvement in a 1998 hostage-taking in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of four hostages - three Britons and one Australian.

He was also accused of providing material support to al Qaeda by trying to set up a training camp for fighters in Oregon in the United States and of trying to organize support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

If convicted, Hamza could face up to life in prison.

He lost his eight-year battle to avoid deportation on Friday after two London High Court judges refused a last bid to delay his departure. The European Court of Human Rights refused to stop London from extraditing Hamza and the four others.

NO TRIAL SOON

While all five defendants made initial court appearances on Saturday before judges in New York and Connecticut, there is little likelihood a full trial will begin soon.

Some U.S. officials are concerned their trials could ignite politically charged debate about security threats and whether militants are being coddled by being tried in civilian courts.

Many experts note that U.S. civilian courts have handled many high-profile cases that involved Islamist militants.

Following a closely watched trial in Manhattan federal court, Tanzanian national Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison in January 2011 for his role in the 1998 bombings. Judge Lewis Kaplan, who oversaw that trial, will also handle the cases of al-Fawwaz and Abdul Bary, both of whom are slated to appear before Kaplan on Tuesday.

Hamza's case has been assigned to Judge Katherine Forrest, who has been on the bench for less than a year. Last month, Forrest issued a controversial ruling blocking enforcement of a U.S. law's provision that authorizes indefinite military detention for people deemed to have "substantially supported" al Qaeda, the Taliban or "associated forces."

Government attorneys, who obtained an emergency suspension of her ruling from an appeals court, argued that Forrest's permanent injunction would hurt America's ability to fight wars overseas.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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