REPORTING FROM LONDON -- A fiery Muslim cleric who celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks in sermons and allegedly tried to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon can be extradited to the United States from Britain, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
The court said Abu Hamza Masri and four other terrorism suspects could be sent to face trial in the U.S. without fear that they would face “inhuman and degrading” conditions in a maximum-security prison if convicted. The men had argued that they could be subject to solitary confinement for the rest of their lives in a so-called “supermax” prison in Colorado where many terrorism convicts are serving time.
The case is considered an important one for U.S.-Europe relations, because a ruling against extradition would have been tantamount to a denunciation of the American judicial and corrections system and could have dealt a blow to anti-terrorism cooperation across the Atlantic.
The five men will not be immediately deported, however, despite the British government’s pledge to “ensure that the suspects are handed over to the U.S. authorities as quickly as possible.” The suspects have three months to appeal the decision to the European court’s Grand Chamber, but such appeals are rarely taken up.
The Egyptian-born Masri, the most prominent of the five men, shot to notoriety in Britain as the imam of a North London mosque who preached sermons extolling the Sept. 11 attacks, demanding the stoning of gay people and calling for the death of nonbelievers. He is currently serving a seven-year sentence in a British prison for inciting murder and racial hatred.
U.S. authorities want Masri extradited to face allegations that he tried to set up a training camp in Bly, Ore., for would-be insurgents in Afghanistan and that he was involved in the kidnapping of a group of Western tourists in Yemen in 1998. Three Britons and an Australian were killed when Yemeni security forces stormed the place where the hostages were being held.
The other suspects covered by Tuesday’s European court ruling include one of Masri’s alleged conspirators in trying to establish the Oregon terrorist training camp and two men accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
[Updated April 10, 11:23 a.m.: The fifth suspect, Babar Ahmad, is believed to have provided logistical and financial support to terrorists.] Judges put off a decision on a sixth man because of continued questions over his mental health.
The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, rejected the men’s contention that their human rights would be violated if they were sent to the Administrative Maximum, or ADX, facility in Florence, Colo.
“If the applicants were convicted as charged, the U.S. 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 seven judges ruled.
In addition, inmates at ADX Florence, “although confined to their cells for the vast majority of the time,” are given access to “services and activities (television, radio, newspapers, books, hobby and craft items, telephone calls, social visits, correspondence with families, group prayer)” that go beyond what most prisons in Europe provide, the judges noted.
[Updated April 10, 11:23 a.m.: Moreover, in Masri’s case, imprisonment at ADX Florence would most likely be “impossible” because of his physical disabilities, the court said. The radical cleric, who turns 54 this year, is blind in one eye and has had both forearms amputated.
Ahmad, the man accused of aiding terrorists, has spent nearly eight years behind bars without trial, the longest such detention in modern times for a British citizen, media reports here say.
His family expressed disappointment at Tuesday’s court ruling and called for him to be tried on British soil.
“All the evidence against him was gathered in this country,” his father, Ashfaq, told reporters. “Nevertheless, British justice appears to have been subcontracted to the U.S.”]
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Radical cleric Abu Hamza Masri, whom the U.S. wants extradited from Britain to face terrorism-related charges, preaches outside a London mosque in February 2003. Credit: Agence France-Presse