Militant clergyman charged in Britain

Authorities accuse cleric of urging followers to kill, having al-Qaida materials

October 20, 2004|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - British authorities charged extremist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri yesterday with possessing al-Qaida literature and inciting the killing of Jews and other non-Muslims, delaying his possible extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on terrorism charges.

The Crown Prosecution Service lodged 16 counts against the one-eyed, hook-handed cleric, whom experts have long considered a major al-Qaida supporter in Europe. The move means he would stand trial in England before being sent to the United States.

U.S. authorities accuse al-Masri of sending a scout to the United States to explore setting up a militant training camp in Oregon, supplying services and recruits to al-Qaida and to the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and of being an accessory to a kidnapping in Yemen in which four foreign tourists were killed.

Al-Masri, 46, a native of Egypt who moved to England 25 years ago, gained notoriety after the Sept. 11 attacks as the inflammatory prayer leader who praised the bombings at his north London mosque, which had been attended by several alleged al-Qaida operatives.

The charges presented yesterday were based mainly on tapes of sermons he gave in which he allegedly used hate-filled language and exhorted followers to act violently, particularly against Jews.

He was accused of "threatening, abusive or insulting behavior with intent to stir up racial hatred." The charges also said that at the time of his arrest in May, al-Masri possessed a document "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing to commit an act of terrorism."

At his Finsbury Park mosque, al-Masri allegedly had contact with Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy, and Richard C. Reid, who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes.

Al-Masri has denied any involvement in violence.

When the 11-count U.S. indictment against al-Masri was made public May 27, British authorities quickly promised an expedited extradition process. But there was some puzzlement in Britain as to why the cleric had been indicted by the United States, and not by authorities here, considering that his alleged offenses had all been committed while he was a British citizen and on British territory.

The charges issued yesterday seemed to be an attempt to rectify that situation.

Al-Masri was accompanied by four police officers when he was brought into the courtroom at Belmarsh Prison, a high-security complex on the southeastern edge of London that has been called this country's Guantanamo Bay because it is where suspected militants are taken.

He appeared without the steel hook on his right hand that he used to brandish during sermons on the street outside the Finsbury mosque. He only nodded when asked to confirm his identity by the presiding magistrate, according to news service accounts.

A further custody hearing was scheduled at London's Old Bailey criminal court for Tuesday.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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