British hate preacher goes on trial in New York

NEW YORK (AFP) - British hate preacher Abu Hamza goes on trial in New York on Monday, facing the rest of his life behind bars if found guilty on kidnapping and terror charges that predate the 9/11 attacks.

It is the second high-profile terror trial to be heard by a Manhattan jury since Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and former Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith was convicted on March 26.

Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri, is blind in one eye and lost both arms, blown off above the elbow, in an explosion in Afghanistan years ago.

His trial will begin with jury selection on Monday and is the culmination of a 10-year legal battle.

On its second day, Tuesday, he will celebrate his 56th birthday.

Abu Hamza was first indicted in the United States in 2004 and served eight years in prison in Britain before losing his last appeal in the European Court of Human Rights against extradition.

In the US, authorities lost no time removing his trademark prosthetic hook that he wore in the place of one hand.

He is charged on 11 counts, over the 1998 kidnapping in Yemen of 16 Western tourists, of whom four were killed, and of conspiring to set up an Al-Qaeda-style training camp in Oregon in late 1999.

He is accused of providing material support to bin Laden's terror network, of wanting to set up a computer lab for the Taliban and sending recruits for terror training in Afghanistan.

Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza moved to London aged 21 to study engineering before he morphed into an anti-American preacher at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.

The mosque has been dubbed a breeding ground for terrorism and was frequented by Richard Reid, serving a life sentence in the US for trying to blow up a transatlantic jetliner in 2001.

Abu Hamza, who has asked to be addressed during the trial by his real name Mustafa, has pleaded not guilty.

"I think I am innocent," he told a pre-trial conference.

Dressed in a blue prison uniform and without prosthetic arms, his hair thick and white, a bearded Abu Hamza has closely followed all pre-trial debates in the Manhattan federal court.

In a recent letter to US District Judge Katherine Forrest, written with a special prosthesis hand, the defendant also said that he wants to testify.

"I pray that the Almighty the Creator inspires you wisdom and patience to leave no stone unturned till the truth," he wrote.

Abu Hamza referred rather pompously to the "historians, researchers, investigative journalists and analysts" who would be "waiting anxiously" and following proceedings.

Forrest has said the trial should last four weeks.

The prosecution is expected to bring several experts and a large number of audio and video recordings, particularly of Abu Hamza's hate speeches justifying terrorism in the name of God.

Prosecutors also want British terror convict Saajid Badat to testify by video link from Britain. Badat already appeared on screen at the trial of Abu Ghaith last month.

But Forrest asked Badat to come in person. He refused, given that he faces arrest on US soil for plotting to blow up a passenger jet with a shoe bomb in collusion with Reid.

Abu Hamza was arrested in August 2004 in Britain at Washington's request, and sentenced in a British court to seven years in jail in 2006 for inciting murder and racial hatred.

He went to the European Court of Human Rights to avoid extradition, but lost his final appeal in October 2012 and was flown immediately to the United States.

In the 1998 hostage-taking, he is accused of providing the kidnappers with a satellite phone, acting as an intermediary and dispensing advice by telephone from home.

Two of the kidnapped tourists were Americans.

He is also accused of providing material support to Al-Qaeda, and just days before the 9/11 attacks he allegedly discussed plans to open a computer lab for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He is accused of giving a co-conspirator 6,000 British pounds (S$12,500 under today's exchange rate) to lease a building to house the computer lab and pay for some of the start-up expenses.

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