Islamic cleric plans to testify in own defense at New York trial

NEW YORK Thu Feb 27, 2014 5:48pm EST

NEW YORK Feb 27 (Reuters) - Radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri plans to testify in his own defense at his trial on terrorism charges in New York in April, according to a letter to the judge overseeing his case.

In a five-page hand-written letter made public on Thursday, al-Masri told U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest he was "surprised" no one had told her of his plans.

Al-Masri also wrote that, when he testifies, he does not want to exclude mention of any person, organization or place referred to in his indictment, saying it would be "impossible" to provide a coherent account otherwise.

The Egyptian-born cleric added that his testimony could be important for historians, researchers, journalists and analysts who are "waiting anxiously" for the trial.

"God willing, some of the explanations will be very useful, life saving and good aid to justice," al-Masri wrote.

The judge said in an order on Thursday that she planned to discuss the letter at a hearing on Friday.

Joshua Dratel, a lawyer for al-Masri, declined to comment. Representatives for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara did not respond to requests for comment.

Al-Masri, 55, was indicted in 2004 for participating in the 1998 abduction in Yemen of 16 hostages, resulting in the death of three Britons and an Australian.

Prosecutors also accuse him of providing material support to the al Qaeda network by trying to set up a training camp in Oregon and attempting to organize support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Al-Masri is missing one eye and both hands, injuries he says he got doing work in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He received prosthetics while awaiting trial last year at the Metropolitan Correctional Center next to the courthouse in lower Manhattan.

After a years-long fight to avoid extradition from Britain, where he was arrested in 2004, al-Masri was flown to the United States to face terrorism charges in October 2012.

In a ruling in August, Forrest rejected al-Masri's motion to dismiss all 11 counts in the indictment. Trial is scheduled for April 14. (Reporting by Nate Raymond; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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