Abu Hamza terror trial: Hamza the human or Hamza the terrible?

The defence and prosecution have set up their cases. Now the jury awaits the testimonies of the cleric’s colleagues and followers

New York

Prosecutors will this week seek to build on their sweeping terror case against a former radical cleric from north London by calling a succession of former associates and followers as witnesses and playing recordings of his past sermons and statements in which he vilifies the West and praises al-Qa’ida.

The stakes are high for the US government as the trial of Abu Hamza,  former imam of the Finsbury Park mosque, north London, enters a second week. He was brought to the US in 2012 to stand trial on charges of fostering terror around the world after a years-long extradition battle. To lose would be a serious embarrassment.

Abu Hamza, 56, who has already served six years in Britain for inciting hatred and soliciting murder, faces 11 charges. He is accused of trying to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon, providing assistance to hostage-takers in an attack on western tourists in Yemen in 1998 that left four dead, and sending support and fighters to al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. He denies all the charges.

At opening statements last week, the jury heard starkly different characterisations of Abu Hamza. Assistant US Attorney Edward Kim said the imam used his London mosque as “the base of operations for the global export of violence and terror”. He added: “You will learn Abu Hamza did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He was not just a preacher of religion, he was a trainer of terrorists.”

A guard outside the Manhattan court hearing the trial of Abu Hamza A guard outside the Manhattan court hearing the trial of Abu Hamza The defence countered that while his rhetoric had often been “harsh” the defendant had, in fact, tried to be a moderating influence, working with MI5 to head off violence in Britain’s Muslim community. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted, but as part of the extradition deal, the US agreed that if convicted he would not be sent to Colorado’s notoriously harsh “supermax” prison.

Before making his statement, defence lawyer Joshua Dratel stood behind Abu Hamza, seated at the defence table, and clasped his shoulders in a gesture meant to relay to jurors that despite Hamza’s fiery reputation and appearance – he lost both hands and an eye in Afghanistan – he remains a human being. He confirmed that Abu Hamza will later take the stand.

But, for the next few days the prosecution will present its case, pausing only for defence cross-examination of its witnesses. They will include an American, Mary Quin, a survivor of the Yemen attack, who went to London to interview the imam for her book. The court will hear a recording in which he admits giving the hostage-takers a satellite phone and saying that the operation had been justified.

Also due to testify is Saajid Badat, who served time in the UK for his role in the “shoe-bomb” conspiracy. He was released after agreeing to serve as a “super-grass”. He refused to travel to New York for fear of being arrested, and the judge, Katherine Forrest, ruled last week that he will be able to testify via video-link from London.

Judge Forrest also denied a defence motion barring the prosecution from playing exerts from statements made by Abu Hamza in the mosque and in interviews. He once described the 9/11 attacks as “a towering day in history” and described Osama bin Laden as “a good guy and a hero”. It won’t be lost on the jury that the 18th floor of the court building where the trial is being heard offers direct views onto the old World Trade Center site.

Last Friday, prosecution witness David Smith, an American who converted to Islam, told the jury of a London meeting in 1999 with the imam and his associates, including Feroz Abbasi, who was later captured by US forces in Afghanistan. Mr Smith  said that at the mosque “going to the mountains” was the code used by the iman to mean going to fight for al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan.

The trial is due to last a month.

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