Abu Hamza guilty of terror charges at New York trial

By Updated at 2014-05-19 23:01:46 +0000


Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Islamist cleric notorious for hate-filled sermons, was facing life in a top-security US prison on Monday after being convicted of all charges after a five-week terrorism trial in New York.

The Egyptian-born cleric, 56, who was an imam at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London in the 1990s, was found guilty by a jury in a Manhattan federal court near the scene of the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

The jury of eight men and four women took just 11 hours over two days to reach their verdict on the complex case.

Hamza was accused of being a terrorist of global reach, and was charged with providing material support to terrorist organizations by enabling hostage-takers in the Yemen kidnapping to speak on a satellite phone, by sending men to establish an al-Qaida training camp in Bly, Oregon, and by sending at least one man to training camps in Afghanistan.

His conviction, on all 11 charges, marks the end of a 10-year mission by American authorities to bring him to justice on US soil.

It is the second major terrorist-related conviction for federal prosecutors in two months. It follows that of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama Bin Laden, in March. Ghaith, who was also tried in a New York federal court, was found guilty of charges related to his work as chief spokesman for Al Qaida in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks.

After the guilty verdict on Monday, officials from the US justice department said it proved that such cases could be tried in civilian courts, rather than sent to military trials at Guantanamo Bay.

"Once again, our civilian system of justice has proven itself up to the task," said the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. "As we have seen in the Manhattan federal courthouse in trial after trial ... these trials have been difficult, but they have been fair and open and prompt."

Hamza, who was tried under his real name of Mustapha Kamel Mustapha, was finally extradited in 2012 from the UK, where he led the Finsbury Park Mosque, reportedly attended by both 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid. Hamza denied that he ever met them.

Hamza looked straight ahead as the verdict was read.

The jury at Manhattan’s federal court agreed with the prosecution claims that Hamza was a “trainer of terrorists” who recruited and indoctrinated young men at the London mosque as part of his global empire.

In his opening statement, Edward Kim, assistant district attorney for the southern district of New York, also said that Hamza used the cover of religion to “hide in plain sight” under the noses of the British authorities for years.

Hamza was convicted of 11 counts of criminal conduct related to the taking of 16 hostages in Yemen in 1998 that left three Britons and an Australian dead. He was also found guilty of advocating violent jihad in Afghanistan in 2001 and conspiring to establish a jihad training camp in Oregon between June 2000 and December 2001.

During the trial Hamza’s defence team tried to claim that the prosecution case, which included videos of his sermons, was just about “words, not deeds”. They described him as an “independent thinker” and “his own man”. His defence team argued that the jury may not have liked the views he espoused, but that they did not amount to crimes.

His defence lawyer Joshua Dratel told them: “These are views, not acts. This is expression, not crimes.”

For much of the past five weeks, jurors watched videotapes and heard audio clips of sermons and interviews in which Hamza ranted at his followers, telling them non-Muslims could be treated like animals “like cows, like pigs” and women and children who were not Muslim could be taken captive.

Hamza, who testified for four days, insisted that he did not take part in acts of terror of support al-Qaida. But he also insisted that, even today, he loved Osama bin Laden and that he thought 9/11 was a good thing.

Hamza, who told the jury that he lost both hands and an eye in an accident in Pakistan, wrote a series of letters to district judge Katherine Forrest saying his evidence would be “important for historians” and overruling his lawyers’ objections to him talking about anything not strictly to do with the case.

His testimony over four days was derided by assistant US attorney Ian McGinley, who told jurors to ignore his “lies” and concentrate on the evidence. In his closing argument, McGinley read the names of four European tourists who died in 1998 in Yemen after their convoy of cars was overtaken by extremist Islamic kidnappers whom Hamza had given the satellite phone. McGinley said a guilty verdict would provide a measure of justice for them and another dozen hostages who survived. "Don't be fooled by his testimony," McGinley said. "Don't let the passage of time diminish what he did."

The jury heard from two women who were hostages in Yemen. One of them, Margaret Thompson, of Texas, who was shot in the leg in a shootout between Yemeni forces and the kidnappers, limped into the courtroom to describe her harrowing 24-hour ordeal.

Mary Quin, a US citizen who now lives in New Zealand, told the court that she escaped one kidnapper by putting her foot against his head and wrestling away his assault rifle after he was knocked to the ground by a bullet.

The government played clips of a taped interview Quin conducted with Hamza in his London mosque as she prepared to write a book about the kidnapping. McGinley told jurors Hamza boasted to Quin about the kidnappings, saying: "Islamically, it is a good thing." McGinley said that statement belied Hamza's claims that when he spoke to the lead kidnapper during the crisis, he tried to be a peacemaker.

"No one who actually tried to be a peacemaker would say to a victim of that kidnapping that it was a good thing," he said.

The prosecutor acknowledged Hamza's speaking skills, saying he was "good with words," but also warned: "Don't buy it."

Judge Forrest banned him from discussing his supposed links with MI5 or Scotland Yard. Dratel had had told the court that he had 50 pages of notes from meetings between Hamza and British intelligence agencies between 1997 and 2000 which had been handed to him by the UK.
Dratel said this showed a “constant dialogue” between them Hamza – but the jury never got to hear it. As a result Hamza was left claiming that he was just the “mouthpiece” for the Yemeni kidnappers and nothing else, a role he likened to that of Gerry Adams with the IRA.

He claimed that he tried to “de-escalate” the situation and told the jury he had nothing to do with the camp in Oregon and did not send anyone to fight with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

A key part of the prosecution's case was that Hamza and Abu Hassan, the leader of the Yemen kidnapping, were partners. They pointed out that he had never shown any remorse about the attacks until he was in the dock.

Hamza admitted providing the satellite phone to the kidnappers but said he was merely a "mouthpiece" and even a peacemaker.

In his closing arguments, McGinley cited the seven-minute conversation Hamza had with Hassan the night before the kidnapping. “What do you think they were talking about? Making peace?” McGinley said that Hamza, in conversations with the kidnappers, had not asked for the hostages to be unharmed, but had asked for them to contact their embassies “to further the cause”. He added: “This is not being a mouthpiece; this is not being a peacemaker. The defendant never expressed remorse until it was convenient for him in the witness box.”

Hamza, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt and moved to Britain aged 21, was jailed in 2006 for seven years in the UK for inciting murder and racial hatred.

During his testimony Hamza ridiculed the testimony of key government witnesses, including Saadit Badat, referring to him as a "pay-as-you-go witness".

Badat, a former al-Qaida operative, told the court he saw Feroz Abbasi, one of Hamza's followers, at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.

After all 11 verdicts were read, Hamza bowed his head slightly and slumped in his seat.

He will be sentenced on September 9, two days before the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

His defence lawyers said they would appeal. Jeremy Schneider, Hamza's attorney, attacked the US justice system and said he did not think his client got a fair trial because he was convicted on his "words not his actions".

Outside the court, Schneider said it was an "extremely high burden" on a jury in New York to give Hamza a fair trial in a court in the shadow of where the World Trade Center used to stand and because the 9/11 memorial museum opened last week.

"The jury came back relatively quickly and with 11 complicated charges seems to me that they walked in almost with a foregone conclusion, that his words were his evidence."

He said the prosecution relied heavily on co-operators who were terrorists.

The jury foreman, who declined to give his name, said there was no doubt in his mind about the verdict, although the jury had been divided at the beginning of their deliberations.

He said that the testimony of Mary Quin, one of the hostages who interviewed Hamza, in 2000, "stood out."

The foreman denied that they had convicted Hamza based on his preachings and said: "I think he got a fair trial."

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham law school, who attended Hamza's trial, said the real question was whether juries in terrorism cases were getting any more sophisticated about the larger spectrum of such cases. She said that the jury took a lot of notes, in a case that was based on "little bits and pieces" of evidence, in contrast to other terror trials she has witnessed.

"We are not over the 9/11 moment" said Greenberg. "It is still going to be difficult and it is going to be difficult for a while."