MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The trial of the radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza began in London today. He's charged with 16 offenses, including incitement to murder and possessing a document relating to terrorism. He's also the subject of an extradition request from the US government. The US has accused Abu Hamza of being an intermediary for terrorist groups and attempting to set up a terror training camp in Oregon. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
In May 2004 British anti-terrorism police arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri at his home in London. US Attorney General John Ashcroft held a news conference in Washington in which he requested Abu Hamza's extradition to the United States. Among other crimes, Ashcroft accused Abu Hamza of orchestrating a plot to take 16 Western tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998 and planning to set up a training camp for militant Muslims near the town of Bly in rural Oregon.
(Soundbite of news conference)
Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former US Attorney General): The indictment alleges that on our about October the 25th, 1999, a co-conspiratorr communicated to Hamza that co-conspirators were stockpiling weapons and ammunition in the United States. It is also alleged that around the same time Hamza received a proposal by fax regarding the creation of Bly jihad training camp.
GIFFORD: Ashcroft stood in front a picture of Abu Hamza. He's an easily recognizable man because, in addition to his long beard and Muslim robes, he has one blind staring eye and a prosthetic hook in place of his right hand, injuries he says he sustained while fighting the Soviet Union with the Mujahedeenin in Afghanistan. Since then he's been based in London where he used to preach incendiary sermons at a north London mosque. Charges against him in Britain do not include acts of terrorism, but he is charged with encouraging people in his sermons to murder Jews and other non-Muslims. Many British people, including Labor Party member of Parliament Andrew Dismore, have campaigned long and hard for some action to be taken against preachers like Abu Hamza.
Mr. ANDREW DISMORE (Member of British Parliament): One of the arguments being is whether these people are simply loudmouths or whether anything more serious has been going on. Well, I figure that the 7th of July attacks in London were quite a wake-up call. There's no suggestion Abu Hamza was directly involved in those, but I think that that has led to much greater urgency on the part of the government. I think that we now are seeing a much more vigorous approach by the government in relation to dealing with the problem of potential terrorists in the UK.
GIFFORD: Dismore is one of the more moderate voices in Britain. The British tabloids have gone to town on radicals like Abu Hamza and the so-called Taunton Taliban. `The sooner Captain Hook is off British soil, the better' screamed a typical editorial in The Sun newspaper. The British government has long suspected Abu Hamza of recruiting radicals such as the convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui. Tim Ripley of the Center of Defense and International Security Studies says just as in the United States, the British government is walking a fine line between allowing free speech and protecting national security. But in this case, Ripley fears the government may be acting to appease public opinion.
Mr. TIM RIPLEY (Center of Defense and International Security Studies): Over the past five years certainly in the UK there's a number of what you'd call celebrities, Islamic radical cases, where these figures who are like Abu Hamza have become media celebrities. The actual media hubbub about the case actually takes on a life of its own beyond the mere facts of what this individual might have done. And certainly the British government is very attuned to what tabloid these papers write and say.
GIFFORD: Abu Hamza has denied any wrongdoing or links to terrorism. He's still fighting moves to strip him of his British citizenship. It's likely that regardless of the result of his trial in the UK, it could be a long time before there's any chance of extradition to the United States. Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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