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Court rules terrorism suspects in Britain can be sent to U.S.

  • Article by: ALAN COWELL and JOHN F. BURNS
  • New York Times
  • April 10, 2012 - 9:07 PM

LONDON - The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Britain could legally extradite five suspects wanted in the United States on terrorism charges, including Abu Hamza al-Masri, an inflammatory former mosque cleric accused in a range of anti-American plots that date back 14 years.

In a precedent that eases extradition of terrorism suspects -- an issue that has surfaced repeatedly since Britain relaxed procedures after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington -- the court ruled that the defendants' human rights would not be violated by their incarceration in a maximum-security U.S. prison.

Although the court said the defendants could not be extradited before further legal procedures were completed, including further objections by rights activists, which could possibly delay their transfer to America for months, the ruling was nonetheless viewed as one of the most important court decisions on the prosecution of terrorism suspects since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Detention conditions and length of sentences of five alleged terrorists would not amount to ill-treatment if they were extradited to the USA," the judges said.

Much attention in the case centered on Al-Masri, a one-time preacher at the Finsbury mosque in London at a time when it was regarded by the British security services as a hotbed of radicalism. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the preacher described himself as Al-Qaida's chief representative in Britain. Abu Hamza al-Masri is the pseudonym by which Mustafa Kamal Mustafa is most widely known.

Before Tuesday's ruling, lawyers acting for him said they would argue at the European court, which is based in Strasbourg, France, that the prospect of a U.S. prison term of 50 years or more for their client would be a breach of his human rights.

Based on charges filed in the United States, the Associated Press reported, Al-Masri and four other suspects could get life-long jail terms in the United States without parole in maximum-security conditions, including concrete furniture, timed showers, tiny cell windows and no outside communications.

The court, however, ruled that it would be legal for Britain to extradite all five of them. It postponed a ruling in a sixth case while awaiting further detail about the suspect's psychological condition.

The ruling also said the five men whose extradition would be regarded as lawful "should not be extradited" until after procedures, including a possible appeal by their lawyers, and other processes to make the judgment final. Those moves could take months.

The six suspects had been indicted in the United States between 1999 and 2006 on charges relating variously to hostage-taking in Yemen and attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa. Al-Masri faces 11 counts relating to hostage-taking in 1998, calling for holy war in Afghanistan in 2001 and participation in an attempt to establish a militant training camp at Bly, Ore., between June 2000 and December 2001.

In the hostage-taking episode, U.S. prosecutors say, the 16 victims, all tourists, included two Americans. Four hostages -- three Britons and one Australian -- were killed and several others were wounded when the Yemeni army tried to rescue them.

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