Controversy as Attorney General talks of death penalty

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The Muslim cleric Abu Hamza could face the death penalty if convicted of terror charges brought in the US, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today.

The maximum sentence for charges faced in the US by the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza is the death penalty, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today.

But British law specifically forbids the Home Secretary from extraditing someone to a jurisdiction where the death penalty applies for the offence with which they are charged - unless a commitment is given in writing that the penalty will not be imposed or, if imposed, will not be carried out.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "In such circumstances, while it may be correct that offences within the United States carry a death penalty, the US are aware, because of our extradition araangements with the USA, that the Home Secretary must not order extradition for an offence which may be punishable by death unless he or she receives adequate written assurances that such a sentence would not be imposed or, if imposed, would not be carried out."That is part of our extradition agreement with the USA."

The spokesman said he believed the assurances would be expected to be given at a later stage in the proceedings and added that it would not be appropriate to comment on this specific case.

Mr Ashcroft, a key player in America's war on terror, announced 11 charges against Hamza, including hostage-taking, helping to set up a training camp in the US and aiding al Qaida.

Speaking in New York, Mr Ashcroft said: "At the request of the United States, Hamza was arrested earlier today by the Metropolitan Police of New Scotland Yard.

"He is being held on terrorism charges that were filed in the United States."

He said: "Hamza faces charges of conspiracy to take hostages and hostage-taking in connection with an attack in Yemen in December of 1998. The hostage-taking resulted in the death of four hostages.

"Hamza is also charged with conspiracy to provide and conceal material support to terrorists and providing and concealing material supports and resources to terrorists and to foreign terrorist organisations, specifically al Qaida."

He said Hamza had supported the setting-up of a terror training camp in Oregon in October 1999.

That venture involved the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition, he said.

Mr Ashcroft said that the US was seeking Hamza's extradition, adding that the maximum sentence if he is convicted is the death penalty.

Mr Ashcroft said there were 11 charges against Hamza.

"These charges are related to Hamza's alleged attempt in late 1999 and early 2000 to set up a training camp for violent jihad" in Oregon, he said.

"Hamza is also charged with providing material support to al Qaida, for facilitating violent jihad in Afghanistan as well as conspiracy to supply goods and service to the Taliban."

He added: "The maximum sentence for hostage-taking, the charges directed towards Hamza, is death penalty or life in prison."

He said the additional charges had a maximum sentence of 100 years in prison.

Mr Ashcroft said Hamza spoke to terrorists who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen on December 28, 1998.

He said Hamza gave the terror faction a satellite phone from which he received three calls at home on December 27.

After the hostage-taking, Hamza agreed to act as an intermediary for the group and ordered £500 of extra air time for the satellite phone, Mr Ashcroft said.

A day after the hostage-taking, the Yemeni military tried to rescue the hostages. Four were killed.

The indictment adds that Hamza conspired with others in October 1999 to provide support to create a terror training camp in Oregon.

Mr Ashcroft said it was alleged that a "co-conspirator communicated to Hamza that co-conspirators were stockpiling weapons and ammunition in the United States".

At the same time Hamza received a fax confirming the plan to establish the camp, it is alleged.