A radical Muslim cleric who is wanted on terrorism charges in the United States was accused by British prosecutors Tuesday of encouraging others to murder non-believers, including Jews, and inciting racial hatred.
The move could add years to U.S. efforts to extradite the cleric, Abu Hamza Masri.
Masri, 47, whose north London mosque became a meeting place and recruitment center for Islamic militants who went on to plan attacks against Western targets, was charged with 10 counts of soliciting murder, five counts of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior with the intention of stirring up racial hatred," and one count of possessing a terrorist document. If convicted, he could receive a life sentence.
The Egyptian-born preacher, who lost an eye and both hands in fighting in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, was arraigned at Belmarsh prison, a high-security center where he has been held since May on a U.S. extradition request. Since British law takes precedence, the charges could result in a potentially lengthy trial here before Masri faces charges in the United States.
A federal grand jury in New York indicted Masri in April on charges of seeking to establish a military training camp for Muslim fighters in rural Oregon and aiding the kidnapping of 16 Western tourists, including 12 Britons and two Americans, in Yemen in 1998. Masri has denied the charges.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced those charges at a news conference in New York in May. Masri is "the real deal," Raymond Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, said at the news conference. "Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide."
The British decision to charge Masri makes it less likely that he will be interrogated for intelligence purposes, U.S. officials said. Had he not been charged in Britain, the United States could have tried to negotiate a plea deal and extradition agreement with Masri's attorneys that might have required his cooperation.
But British and U.S. authorities have no legal right to question Masri now, and plea bargaining does not exist under the British legal system. U.S. authorities would likely not be able to ask British courts to extradite Masri to face charges in the United States before the adjudication of his case in Britain, and they may have to wait until he has served his sentence, U.S. officials said.
Masri was arrested in a pre-dawn raid in May. During the search of his home, a knowledgeable person said, police discovered video and audio tapes of sermons, speeches and other materials that led directly to Tuesday's charges. Officials would not comment on the charges, citing Britain' s strict laws against pretrial publicity.
A former nightclub bouncer who has lived in Britain for 25 years, Masri has been one of the most visible and high-profile supporters in London of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. On the first two anniversaries of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, he held public meetings praising the actions of the hijackers and blaming Jews and the Bush administration for inciting Muslim outrage.
British authorities long suspected him of a role in recruiting radicals such as Richard C. Reid, a British citizen convicted of trying to blow up an American Airlines flight in 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was charged in the United States with aiding the Sept. 11 plot. But until recently they were unable or unwilling to mount a prosecution of Masri, who obtained citizenship here in 1981 after marrying a British woman whom he has since divorced.
But last year, Home Secretary David Blunkett, the cabinet minister in charge of domestic security, declared Masri a national security threat and moved to strip him of his citizenship. Officials also turned over control of his Finsbury Park mosque to moderates opposed to his teachings. He has appealed both moves and for nearly a year before his arrest resorted to preaching on the street outside the mosque.
Hugo Keith, a British lawyer representing the U.S. government in the case, asked the court at Tuesday's arraignment to adjourn the extradition request until the domestic charges were adjudicated. Masri did not comment or enter a plea at the hearing. In the past, he and his supporters have said he was only exercising his right to free speech and had no involvement in terrorist activities. Some civil liberties advocates here have said he is being singled out unfairly by the government because of his outspoken views.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt in Washington contributed to this report.