Schizophrenic Briton sentenced to 20 years' jail in US for trying to set up terrorist training camp

Haroon Aswat, 41, is shown in this courtroom sketch during sentencing in a New York Federal court on Oct 16.
Haroon Aswat, 41, is shown in this courtroom sketch during sentencing in a New York Federal court on Oct 16. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - A Briton convicted over an attempt to set up a militant training camp in the United States on orders from hate preacher Abu Hamza was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Friday (Oct 16) in New York.

Haroon Aswat, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, cut a despondent figure in the Manhattan federal court, dressed in a faded prison shirt and wearing his long dark hair plaited in braids.

The 41-year-old has already spent 11 years in custody, meaning that he could qualify for early release in six years. His lawyer said he would apply for Aswat to serve out his sentence in Britain.

First arrested in Zambia in 2005, Aswat was extradited last year to the United States where he pleaded guilty in March to one count of providing material support to Al-Qaeda and one count of conspiring to support the terror group.

In a brief statement, Aswat apologised for breaking US law and causing "distress" to friends and family, and said he looked forward to finding a wife, and settling down.

He said he opposed violence against innocent people and recited a prayer learnt in childhood, opening his statement in Arabic in the name of God and closing with a simple "amen".

In 1999-2000, Aswat spent about two months in Seattle and Bly, Oregon at the behest of the radical London cleric Abu Hamza as part of a plot to set up a training camp for recruits wanting to fight in Afghanistan.

Following his return to London, he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in mid-2001 in order to attend a training camp.

Prosecutors depicted Aswat as a man "at the right-hand of Abu Hamza" with a thirst for violent jihad who kept "a host of disturbing literature" on his computer.

Aswat came to the United States "at the direction of one of the world's most dangerous terrorist leaders" and could pose a danger when he is released, prosecutors argued on Friday.

Aswat was previously held at Broadmoor, a high-security British psychiatric hospital.

His lawyer Peter Quijano told the court his client never tried to join Al-Qaeda, describing him as a "child-like" individual who embraced a "hippy lifestyle" and "self-medicated" with marijuana.

After the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Aswat fled to South Africa, where he had family, and embarked on a life as an itinerant salesman of pirated CDs of Islamic chants and prayer, said the defense lawyer.

Mr Quijano told reporters he would request his client's transfer to Britain, where Aswat's parents are based.

US District Judge Katherine Forrest said it was "of the greatest importance" that he receive specialist psychiatric care and that the court would support him serving out his sentence in Britain.

The defense called for Aswat's immediate release given that he has already spent a quarter of his life in prison.

Mr Quijano said Aswat was held at least three times in isolation in the United States, despite promises to the contrary, including one five-day period in which he did not receive medication.

Aswat's lawyer told the court his client never aligned himself with violence but had "felt sorry" for the one-armed Abu Hamza, becoming his assistant "doing day-to-day chores".

Mr Quijano called the Bly plot "pathetic and laughable" and said all his client had done was teach Islam, Arabic and the Quran.

"What did he do there? It was minimal," he said.

American government officials say Aswat was included on a list of people associated with Al-Qaeda recovered from a safe house used by 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan.

Judge Forrest sentenced Abu Hamza to life behind bars in January for the fatal kidnapping of Western tourists in Yemen and on a slew of terror charges, calling him "evil" and his crimes "barbaric".