LONDON – A Muslim cleric who applauded the Sept. 11 attacks and called for nonbelievers to be put to death lost what appeared to be his final legal bid Friday in a long-running battle to avoid being shipped to the United States to face terrorism charges.
[Updated 4:20 pm Oct. 5: Abu Hamza Masri and four others sought for trial in the United States were put on two planes at the RAF Mildenhall base and departed for an unspecified U.S. destination, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported early Saturday.]
Britain’s High Court rejected Masri’s last-minute petition to block his extradition on medical grounds. The judges said there was an “overwhelming public interest” in seeing the extradition carried out and that there was no reason the controversial imam could not find adequate treatment in the U.S. for his ailments, including depression and diabetes.
The ruling appears to remove the final impediment to putting Masri on a plane to the U.S., which both British and American officials are eager to see happen as quickly as possible. U.S. authorities want Masri to stand trial on allegations that he tried to establish a camp in Oregon to train recruits for the Afghan insurgency and that he participated in the kidnapping of Western tourists in Yemen.
In addition to Masri, the judges cleared the way for four other terrorism suspects to be extradited, including two men accused of involvement in the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But the Egyptian-born Masri’s case has attracted the most attention. The hard-line cleric, who is notorious for his militant sermons and his distinctive look -– he has only one eye and uses metal hooks for hands -– has exasperated the government here for years with his continued appeals to British and European courts against being sent to the U.S.
In April, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, upheld previous rulings in favor of Masri’s extradition, a decision seen as an important victory for trans-Atlantic relations and cooperation in counterterrorism matters. Last month, the same court rejected Masri’s appeal to revisit the case, which seemed to be the end of the protracted legal saga.
But before relieved British officials could get him out of their country, Masri’s lawyers filed a last-ditch appeal to the High Court, pleading for extradition to be suspended because of their client’s deteriorating health. Masri is currently in a British prison serving a seven-year sentence for inciting racial hatred.
Friday’s ruling came as little surprise. During three days of hearings this week, the two judges on the case expressed thinly veiled skepticism over Masri’s claims of illness, questioning why he had not raised the issue in previous court hearings.
Britain’s Home Office welcomed the judges’ decision. “We are now working to extradite these men as quickly as possible,” it said in a statement.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza Masri, right, preaches to followers at a London mosque in 2004 as a masked bodyguard looks on. Credit: Carl de Souza / AFP/Getty Images