April 14 (Bloomberg) -- Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Islamic cleric accused of aiding an al-Qaeda affiliate’s deadly attack in Yemen and trying to start a terrorist training camp in Oregon, said he plans to testify in his own defense at a trial almost a decade after the U.S. sought his extradition.
Abu Hamza, 55, who once preached at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, was first charged in a 2004 indictment. After his arrest by the Metropolitan Police in London that May, Abu Hamza, described by prosecutors as “a terrorist with global reach,” fought extradition before being brought to the U.S. in 2012.
Blind in one eye and missing both of his hands, Abu Hamza has been a zealous advocate for himself in both letters to the judge as well as in comments he’s made in court during pretrial hearings.
“I think I am innocent,” Abu Hamza told a judge during a pretrial hearing last week, saying he wanted a trial to “have a chance to defend myself.” In a Feb. 21 letter to the court, he said he planned to testify during his trial, which began today in federal court in Manhattan.
“It is also important for historians, researchers, investigative journalists and analysts who are awaiting anxiously the matter of your court,” he wrote the judge.
The government is seeking to use as evidence some of Abu Hamza’s sermons delivered at the mosque, which had been attended by convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who pleaded guilty to being part of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist plot.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, who is presiding over the case, hasn’t ruled on whether the jury will hear the speeches.
Forrest today selected a jury of eight men and four women to hear the case, telling the panel to return April 17 for lawyers’ opening statements.
She also ruled today that Saajid Badat, a U.K. man who pleaded guilty to attempting to detonate a shoe-bomb on a commercial aircraft in 2001, can testify for the government by closed-circuit television. Two other federal judges in New York have allowed Badat to testify in that way in other cases.
Abu Hamza, born in Egypt as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, was granted British citizenship in 1986. He was convicted in the U.K. in 2006 of inciting followers to murder Jews and other non-Muslims in sermons from 1997 to 2000. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
One set of charges alleged by the U.S. relates to the deaths of four of the 16 hostages, including two Americans, taken in a terrorist attack on a tourist caravan in Yemen in December 1998. According to the indictment, Abu Hamza provided a satellite phone to the leader of a faction of the Islamic Army of Aden and other co-conspirators.
Abu Hamza spoke to the co-conspirators after the attack, agreed to act as an intermediary for them, and ordered additional airtime worth 500 British pounds ($837) for the satellite phone used by the terrorists, prosecutors have said.
The U.S. also accuses Abu Hamza and his co-conspirators of raising funds from the London mosque and other U.K. venues for the Taliban and to support training for violent jihad in Afghanistan.
Abu Hamza also attempted in 1999 and 2000 to start a terrorist training camp for al-Qaeda in Bly, Oregon, prosecutors in the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleged.
One co-defendant in the plot, Oussama Kassir, was convicted after a federal trial in Manhattan in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison. A second man is in the U.K. fighting extradition.
Abu Hamza is charged with 11 counts, including conspiracy to take hostages, hostage-taking, providing material support to al-Qaeda and conspiracy to aid the Taliban. He has pleaded not guilty. The maximum penalty for hostage-taking is life in prison.
The cases are U.S. v. Mustafa, 04-cr-00356, and U.S. v. al-Fawwaz, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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