In the dock: the radical cleric who became an embarrassment

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The Independent Online

For a man who has spent five years playing an elaborate game of cat and mouse with the British authorities, Abu Hamza was uncharacteristically silent when police arrived at his Hammersmith home in the early hours of yesterday.

For a man who has spent five years playing an elaborate game of cat and mouse with the British authorities, Abu Hamza was uncharacteristically silent when police arrived at his Hammersmith home in the early hours of yesterday.

He was bundled into a waiting police van and taken to Paddington Green police station and then on to Belmarsh prison where he made his first appearance in what is expected to be a hard-fought extradition battle with the US government.

As he stood in the dock, the radical Muslim cleric, wearing a grey coat, open-necked white shirt and white T-shirt, was read the charges against him. Above him in the public gallery, more than a dozen of his supporters sat in silence.

Then the court clerk asked him if he would consent to being extradited to the United States. Mr Hamza gave a soft laugh and shrugged his shoulders. It was a simple, defiant gesture that left no one in any doubt that Mr Hamza had no intention of giving the American officials an easy ride.

The radical preaching of the Muslim cleric has long been a source of embarrassment for the Home Office and the police while his vitriolic attacks on America and their allies have made him a hate figure of the right-wing press. Since 11 September 2001, there have been a number of attempts to silence him, including efforts to seek his extradition to Egypt and Yemen.

Throughout all this Mr Hamza has managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. But this latest intervention by US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, has raised the stakes. Mr Hamza now faces 11 charges under the US indictment, including allegations that he helped set up terrorist training camps in Oregon, aided hostage takers in Yemen and assisted the Taliban and al-Qai'da.

Mr Hamza, 47, is an Egyptian-born former nightclub bouncer who says he lost both hands and an eye while clearing Soviet mines in Afghanistan. He has spoken about his admiration for Osama bin Laden but denies breaking the law by supporting terrorism.

He married a British woman, Valerie Fleming and gained British citizenship but became disillusioned with Western values and immersed himself in the Islamic faith. In the early 1980s, he travelled to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet occupation.

It was there he sustained the injuries to his hand and eye - apparently clearing landmines for the mujahedin - that make him such a distinctive figure. He has also claimed to have worked in the Muslim community in Bosnia.

On his return to Britain, he became a key figure at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, which has become notorious for its militancy.

In April last year, legal moves began to strip him of his British citizenship and deport him to the Yemen using new powers introduced by Home Secretary David Blunkett. The powers allow British citizenship to be removed from immigrants who "seriously prejudice" the UK's interests.

Mr Hamza's lawyers immediately appealed against the move, claiming legal aid to cover the costs of the battle. Last month, that appeal formally began but a full hearing by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission was delayed until 10 January, 2005. Unless Mr Hamza's lawyers successfully fight off yesterday's US extradition attempt, that hearing is unlikely to take place.

Mr Hamza's entanglement with the British authorities can be traced back to February 1999 when he was said to be linked to terrorists on trial in the Yemen accused of kidnapping Westerners. Yemen claimed he was behind a planned terror campaign and said it wanted him extradited. Mr Hamza was later arrested and questioned by Scotland Yard detectives. He was held for several days before being released without charge. He always maintained his innocence.

In April 2002, Mr Hamza was formally suspended by the Charity Commission from his position at the mosque because of his inflammatory speeches. But on 11 September, 2002 - the first anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks - Mr Hamza spoke at a controversial conference at the mosque entitled "A Towering Day in History".

The latest efforts to silence Mr Hamza have all the hallmarks of a meticulously planned operation involving officials from both Washington and London.

Last night, members of the Muslim community expressed concern about his treatment. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, said Mr Hamza should be tried in Britain before any decision was taken to send him to the United States.

He said: "Abu Hamza will not be extradited to the United States, unless we find credible evidence that he has been involved in terrorist activities or criminal offences. Before this has been established, we do not expect the judges to send him to the US."

Anas Altikriti, of the Muslim Association of Britain, voiced concern about the manner of Hamza's arrest. "The ever-increasing phenomenon of dawn raids where people are dragged out of their beds, their families and children terrified, is something which is extremely concerning particularly to the Muslim community whom these raids target more than any other," he said. "It doesn't really show much for democracy, freedom and human rights in our society."

He said Mr Hamza should be tried by a British court. "All along we have said that all talk of withdrawing his citizenship and extraditing him to this place or that is something that defies democracy and defies his human rights. The overwhelming majority of the Muslim community has had a grievance with the media in particular, and that is they have offered Abu Hamza far more time and coverage than his message lends credit."

New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly takes a rather different view. He described Mr Hamza yesterday as the "real deal". He added: "He is suspected of providing support to trainees in Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps as well as dispatching associates from England to help establish jihad training sites here in the US. Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorism groups worldwide."

Lawyers for the Government told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission last month that Mr Hamza had "supported individuals in the physical aspects of jihad, including fighting overseas". They included Algerian, Yemeni, Egyptian and Kashmiri terror groups and al-Qa'ida.

Ian Burnett QC, for the Home Secretary, said Mr Hamza had "provided through Finsbury Park a centre of extremism and a safe haven for Islamic extremists, enabling them to develop the support and contacts necessary to further violent aims".

Yesterday, David Blunkett said the law had been specifically introduced in order to withdraw Mr Hamza's citizenship. "I share the concern of the British public. That is why when we changed the law to withdraw his citizenship, I immediately took action to implement that and supported the Americans in being able to provide the paperwork and to undertake the traditional process in relation to his extradition."

But he added: "Of course it is a judicial process and I have got to be very careful not to interfere with that but I think everyone who has been concerned about this man will want us to get it right."

Mr Blunkett said the "appropriate steps" were being taken in light of the extradition request from the US.

He said: "We have agreement with the US that the death penalty would not be put in place. Obviously it is up to them to determine an alternative sentence. But let us determine the extradition first."

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On the British:

"They want only to look at nude pictures, go to football matches, have a few pints and go to sleep. They have become slaves."

After a suicide bomber attacked a British patrol in Afghanistan:

"What he did was honourable. It is a great way to resist."

On the Columbia space disaster:

"It is a punishment from God. It is a trinity of evil because it carried Americans, an Israeli and a Hindu, a trinity of evil against Islam."

On 11 September:

"America is a crazy superpower. What was done was done in self-defence."