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British arrest radical cleric US seeks { May 28 2004 }

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May 28, 2004
British Arrest Radical Cleric U.S. Seeks

LONDON, May 27 - The British police arrested a radical Islamic cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, early Thursday after the United States requested his extradition to face trial on numerous charges related to alleged terrorist activities.

In an 11-count indictment unsealed in New York on Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Mr. Masri faced charges of hostage-taking and conspiracy in connection with an attack in Yemen in 1998 on 16 tourists, including two Americans. Four hostages - three Britons and one Australian - were killed and several others were wounded when the Yemeni Army tried to rescue them.

"Those who support our terrorist enemies anywhere in the world must know that we will not rest until the threat they pose is eradicated," Mr. Ashcroft said.

Mr. Masri, an Egyptian-born cleric who is now a British citizen, is also charged with conspiracy to provide and conceal material support to terrorists, specifically Al Qaeda. The charges relate to attempts by Mr. Masri in late 1999 and early 2000 to set up a camp for "violent jihad" in Bly, Ore., Mr. Ashcroft said.

In addition, Mr. Masri is accused of providing material support for Al Qaeda to further a holy war in Afghanistan, and conspiracy to aid the Taliban there.

Mr. Ashcroft said the maximum sentence for hostage-taking was the death penalty or life imprisonment. If convicted on the other charges, he added, Mr. Masri faces an additional sentence of up to 100 years in prison.

Some critics accused the United States of moving against an inconsequential figure to demonstrate progress in fighting terrorists. But Raymond W. Kelly, New York City's police commissioner, said Mr. Masri was a major figure.

"Hamza is the real deal," he said. "He is suspected of providing material support to trainees in Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps, as well as dispatching associates from England to help establish a jihad training site on U.S. soil. Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide."

While Mr. Kelly said information from a "cooperating source" had led to the charges against Mr. Masri, it remained unclear why the cleric had been arrested at this particular juncture. Asked about the timing of the arrest, Mr. Ashcroft said only: "I don't want to get into the evidence of the case. During trial, the evidence will be clear."

American officials voiced concerns that Mr. Masri's arrest could set off reprisals against Americans in Europe or the United States. "Any time you have an arrest of this magnitude, that's a concern," an American law enforcement official said.

British law prohibits the extradition of suspects who could face a death sentence. But John Spencer, a spokesman for the British Crown Prosecution Service in London, which represents the United States in extradition hearings, said Mr. Masri could still be sent to the United States provided the American authorities agreed not to impose the death penalty.

David Blunkett, the home secretary, said Britain and the United States had reached such an agreement last year.

Mr. Masri, with his fiery anti-Western speeches, has been a contentious figure in Britain for several years, but the police have held back from arresting him. That changed at 3 a.m. Thursday, when police officers closed off streets in the suburban area of west London where Mr. Masri lives with his family. There was no indication of a struggle.

"He is quite calm about it," said his lawyer, Muddassar Arani.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Masri was also facing extradition proceedings from Yemen, which accuses him of fomenting terrorism in 1998. Additionally, the authorities here were trying to strip him of the British nationality he acquired by marriage in the early 1980's, citing his alleged support for Al Qaeda and for a terrorist cell in Yemen.

Shortly after his arrest, the police began searching his house in the Shepherd's Bush district.

Mr. Masri has one eye and a steel hook in place of his right hand, as a result of what he has described as land-mine explosions while fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was formerly the preacher at the Finsbury Park Mosque here.

Both Richard Reid, the so-called shoe-bomber, and Zaccharias Moussaoui, accused of being the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, reportedly attended that mosque before their arrest. The mosque had been depicted by European antiterrorism investigators as a focus of terrorist planning.

Mr. Masri was barred from preaching at the mosque, which was closed down by the authorities last year, and has taken to preaching to his supporters in the streets outside.

He has been accused by the British authorities of making "extreme and political statements." They include praising Mr. bin Laden as a hero and describing the crash of the space shuttle Columbia as "punishment from God." He called the American-led invasion of Iraq a war against Islam and has described the Sept. 11 attacks as a Jewish conspiracy.

He has denied having ties to Al Qaeda.

After his arrest, Mr. Masri was moved to a high-security complex at Belmarsh Prison in southeast London for an initial hearing into the American charges. His lawyers said he would fight the extradition request. Asked if he would consent to being extradited, Mr. Masri replied, "I don't really think I want to, no," Britain's Press Association news agency reported.

The court ruled that Mr. Masri would be held in prison until a further hearing on June 3. Formal extradition hearings are set to begin on July 23.

Under British law, extradition proceedings can take months if not years, and can collapse if British courts are not convinced by the evidence offered to them from the country seeking a suspect's extradition.

In one case after the Sept. 11 attacks an Algerian pilot, Lotfi Raissi, was held through months of hearings and finally released because a British court ruled that the American authorities had not produced evidence to justify his extradition.

Since then, British rules have been relaxed to permit extradition hearings to proceed more swiftly.

Mr. Masri moved to Britain in the early 1980's as a student of civil engineering and worked as a nightclub doorman. In the 1990's, however, he was reported to have fought the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

He is one of several high-profile Muslim clerics in Britain who have been accused of supporting terrorism.

Some, like Abu Qatada, who is said to have been the spiritual counselor of Mohamed Atta, who led the Sept. 11 hijacking plot, remain in prison in Britain without charge. Others, like Sheik Omar al-Bakri, leader of a movement called Al Muhajiroun, remain free and continue to carry out a robust ideological campaign.

In a television interview on Thursday after Mr. Masri's arrest, Mr. Bakri said people like him and his fellow clerics were "guilty by default" because of a Western campaign against Islam.

Even moderate Islamic figures showed some unease at Mr. Masri's detention.

"We are totally against his views as we have shown," said Ahmed Versi, editor of the newspaper Muslim News. "But the point of principle is an important one. There must be proper evidence against him which would stand in a court of law in this country."

And Anas Altikriti, a former president of the Muslim Association of Britain, declared: "The worrying thing is that these dawn raids and arrests are becoming quite a frequent occurrence in the Muslim community. It sets a flawed and dangerous precedent."

Only last month in Manchester, 10 people, most of them Iraqi Kurds, were arrested in connection with a supposed terror plot but then released without being charged.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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