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Islamist cleric from Britain to appear in U.S. court

Demonstrator Anjem Choudary, protests in support of Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is appealing against his extradition to the U.S.
Demonstrator Anjem Choudary, protests in support of Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is appealing against his extradition to the U.S.

By Basil Katz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri will appear before a federal judge in New York on Saturday after Britain extradited the one-eyed radical preacher to the United States to face trial and a potential life sentence on terrorism charges.

The Egyptian-born Abu Hamza, 54, 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. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said on Saturday that Hamza and two of the others would make an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court later in the day.

A fiery anti-Western speaker, Abu Hamza is said to have inspired some of the world's most high-profile militants including Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the accused September 11, 2001 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.

Hamza was indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan 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.

U.S. officials said they were pleased that 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, and it makes good on a promise to the American people to use every available diplomatic, legal, and administrative tool to pursue and prosecute charged terrorists no matter how long it takes," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

Saudi native Khalid al-Fawwaz, 50, and Egyptian Adel Abdul Bary, 52, will also appear in Manhattan federal court later on Saturday. They will be asked to enter a plea on charges that they and others were involved in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

British citizens Babar Ahmad, 38 and Syed Talha Ahsan, 33, are charged with supporting al Qaeda and other militant groups by operating various websites promoting Islamic holy war.

Ahmad and Ahsan pleaded not guilty before a federal judge in New Haven, Connecticut on Saturday morning, court records showed. They will remain jailed pending trial. Attorneys for the men could not immediately be reached.

It was not immediately clear if Hamza and the two other suspects had retained or been assigned defense attorneys.

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.

Abu Hamza, who wears a hook in place of his missing right hand, says he lost both hands and an eye while living in Afghanistan in the 1980s while carrying out humanitarian work. Authorities say he was fighting for the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union.

After being held on the U.S. extradition warrant, he was jailed for seven years 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.

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 will make brief court appearances on Saturday before judges in Manhattan and Connecticut, there is little likelihood that a full trial will begin soon.

Some U.S. officials are concerned that their trials could ignite politically motivated debate about security threats and coddling of militants.

Yet many experts caution that U.S. civilian courts can and 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.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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