The arrest of Abu Hamza

Extremist cleric faces extradition to US over al-Qa'ida links. So is he a dangerous terrorist - or just a political pawn?
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The Independent Online

The extremist Muslim cleric Abu Hamza was accused yesterday by the United States of attempting to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon and of aiding al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

The extremist Muslim cleric Abu Hamza was accused yesterday by the United States of attempting to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon and of aiding al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

The allegations of wide-ranging terrorist activities, which included accusations that the British citizen had helped hostage-takers in Yemen, were made by the US authorities during extradition hearings in London. Mr Hamza appeared in a high security court after being arrested at his home in west London at 3am yesterday following a US request for him to be extradited.

The 47-year-old has become a major embarrassment to the Government for his extremist views and support for Osama bin Laden. US intelligence agencies consider him to be a leading member of al-Qa'ida's European network, but until now attempts to extradite or prosecute him have failed.

Muslim leaders in Britain yesterday reacted with caution at the news of his arrest and warned that the Government must not use the United States as a "backhand" way of disregarding his human rights and jailing him.

Suspicions that the timing of the extradition hearing was a stunt to help focus attention away from the Iraq war were heightened when John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, held a press conference in New York to publicise the charges. His planned arrest was also leaked to The Sun's political editor hours before it took place, ensuring a positive front page story on anti-terrorism. Raymond Kelly, the commissioner of the New York police, described Mr Hamza as "a freelance consultant to terrorism groups worldwide".

Downing Street was forced to correct a comment made yesterday by Mr Ashcroft, who said that if the cleric was convicted of the hostage-taking charge he could be executed. But David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, insisted that the Egyptian-born preacher would not be handed over to the Americans unless there was a guarantee he would not face the death penalty.

Yesterday's operation by Scotland Yard's extradition unit and anti-terrorist officers follows months of negotiations between US and British law enforcement authorities. Mr Hamza, who lost an eye and has a hook in place of a hand purportedly blown off while clearing Soviet mines in Afghanistan, was taken to the magistrates' court at Belmarsh high security prison in south east London where he was remanded in custody.

The US indictment accused him of 11 offences including attempting to establish a terrorist camp in Bly in the northwestern state of Oregon between October 1999 and April 2000.

The indictment said Mr Hamza also acted as an intermediary with the extremists who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen six years ago. Four tourists were killed when rescuers were involved in a shootout with the terrorists. The court was told that Mr Hamza had provided a satellite phone to the terror group and the day after the kidnapping, he had put £500 of credit on the phone.

The grand jury indictment contains little new information about his alleged activities, adding to suspicions that the timing of the cleric's arrest has as much to do with the Bush administration's problems as anything else.

Anas Altikriti, a former president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said: "I see it as a backhand way of getting through to a person who the judicial system in Britain see no reason to charge or have standing trial. The Muslim community do not see him as worthy of speaking on their behalf ... He has been given far more coverage than he is worth. But that does not take away from his human rights, and it ought not to."

In April last year legal moves began to strip Mr Hamza of his British citizenship and deport him to the Yemen. Mr Hamza's lawyers appealed against the move, and a full hearing by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission has been delayed until January 2005.