Speaking quietly into the microphone on the witness stand, Abu Hamza, the former imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London, repeated 12 times “no” to the charges at the heart of his terror trial in New York. Had he committed the crimes he is charged with by the American government, he was asked. “No,” he replied each time. And once: “Never.”
The dramatic turn in the trial came moments after the defence opened its case. His testimony is expected to last into next week. The defence is expected to bring only one other witness.
Abu Hamza, 56, with a thick white beard and shock of white hair, was firm and clear in stating his denials as each of the main charges was put to him. Among the most important: had he conspired to plan the kidnapping of tourists in Yemen at the end of 1998? Had he sent prospective fighters for al-Qa’ida to Bly, in Oregon, for training purposes? Had he provided any kind of material support to the Taliban in Afghanistan? A motion by the defence for an acquittal, lodged the instant that the prosecution had rested, was rejected by trial judge Katherine Forrest.
The trial began in mid-April following Abu Hamza’s extradition from Britain, where he had already served six years for terror-related charges.
On the stand, Abu Hamza was taken by the defence through his early years in the UK after moving there from his native Alexandria in Egypt. “I wanted to see the world,” he said. Alexandria had been very “pro-Western and he had been looking forward to the “Western life, American-style”.
He spoke in what sounded like almost affectionate terms of studying engineering in Brighton and at Brunel University, becoming a member of the Royal Society of Engineers and eventually working at Sandhurst, overseeing the construction of several buildings such as a car park and a petrol station.
At one moment the judge asked the defendant to clarify if he understood the concept of telling the truth. “I gave you my oath. I am no stranger to prison. If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and belief, then I don’t want it,“ he said.
Earlier in the day, his defence team told the judge, not in the presence of the jury, that during the time covered by the charges he had been in close contact with British security services, offering information and guidance in an effort to “keep the streets of London safe”, his defence contended.
His lawyers said they intended to make use of 50 pages of documents provided by Scotland Yard that would back up the claim that he had been of vital assistance in London to keep his followers calm during periods of particular tension in the late 1990s and into 2000.
The judge ruled she would not allow the defence to use the Scotland Yard documents. But Abu Hamza’s team was expected to appeal today.
The circumstances of repeated conversations with MI5 and Scotland Yard would be the “theme of our defence,” Joshua Dratel, for Abu Hamza, told the judge. “He was an intermediary… with respect to cooling heads in the community, with respect to maintaining order in the community.”
Abu Hamza denies all the charges. The case continues.