London's one-eyed preacher goes on trial in New York
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A one-eyed Egyptian-born preacher known for delivering fiery speeches from his former base in London goes on trial Monday in New York, accused of providing support to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and aiding a 1998 kidnapping of tourists in Yemen.
Abu Hamza, 55, was extradited in 2012 to the United States from Britain, where he had been jailed for inciting followers to kill non-believers while operating a mosque that British authorities said was a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.
Under the terms of British and European court rulings authorising his extradition, he must be tried in a civilian court.
US prosecutors say Hamza used money he raised at his UK mosque to help militants travel to Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 and exhorted his followers to donate to Taliban programmes there. He is also accused of helping militants in Yemen take 16 tourists hostage in 1998 by providing them with advice and a satellite phone. Three Britons and an Australian were killed when the Yemeni military launched a rescue mission.
The government also accuses Hamza of conspiring to create a militant training camp in Oregon in 1999.
Hamza had contact with several well-known militants at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, according to British officials. Those contacts included Briton Richard Reid, who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a Miami-bound airliner with explosives hidden in his shoe in 2001.
The imam, who is using his birth name, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, in court, is missing an eye and both hands, injuries he says took place while he was doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Authorities say he sustained the injuries fighting for the mujahideen against the Soviet Union. In London, he became known for wearing a metal hook on one arm.
Hamza, who faces life in prison if convicted, told a judge at a pretrial hearing on Wednesday that he is innocent.
As part of their case, prosecutors plan to employ Hamza’s own incendiary words against him. At a hearing this week, they told District Judge Katherine Forrest they intend to play for the jury a series of recordings of Abu Hamza praising Osama bin Laden and castigating Jews, Christians and homosexuals.
Hamza’s defense lawyers argued that the recordings have little relevance to the charges against him and will inflame the jury.
In a handwritten letter to Forrest in February, Hamza said he planned to testify in his own defense.
On Wednesday, at the final pretrial hearing, Forrest asked Hamza whether he understood that he could seek a plea deal if he is guilty and does not want to proceed to trial.
“I think I’m innocent,” he told the judge, saying the trial represented “a chance to defend myself”.
The government also plans to call as a witness former al Qaeda operative Saajid Badat, who plotted with Reid to blow up airplanes before Badat backed out at the last minute. Prosecutors say Badat would testify that Hamza ordered him and another man to travel to Afghanistan for training.
Badat previously pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with British authorities, serving six years in prison in Britain. He has testified at two terrorism-related trials in the United States, including that of Suleiman Abu Ghaith.
In both he appeared via closed-circuit television after refusing to travel to the United States, where he remains under indictment in Massachusetts for the shoe bomb plot.
Forrest has not yet decided whether to allow him to testify on video after he declined to come to New York. In a letter to Forrest on Wednesday, prosecutors said Badat would be arrested if he entered the United States.
The trial, which is expected to last about a month, comes less than three weeks after a jury in the same New York courthouse convicted Ghaith, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons-in-law, of terrorism-related charges.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
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