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Five accused al-Qaeda backers arrive in U.S. for trial

This Friday, April 30, 2004 file photo shows Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, with a masked bodyguard, right, in London. Hamza, an Egyptian-born British citizen, is charged with a hostage-taking in Yemen in 1998, conspiracy to establish terror training camps on U.S. soil and supporting jihad in Afghanistan in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (MAX NASH/AP)

Five alleged al-Qaeda backers pursued by the United States since the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations appeared in Connecticut and New York to face terrorism charges Saturday after long-running legal battles over their extradition from Britain.

Two of the men had been arrested in London shortly after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in North Africa but, until this weekend, had fought efforts for 14 years to bring them to U.S. courts to face trial. Each of the others had seen their cases drag out for at least six years, illustrating the extreme difficulty in pursuing international terrorism cases through the criminal courts, even in instances involving a close ally such as Britain.

The radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri and the others arrived in the United States on Saturday morning, after a last-ditch appeal in the British courts failed earlier in the week.

Masri, an Egyptian-born British citizen, is charged with a hostage-taking in Yemen in 1998, conspiracy to establish terrorism training camps on U.S. soil, and supporting jihad in Afghanistan in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Two other men, Adel Abdel Bary, an Egyptian national, and Khaled al-Fawwaz, a Saudi who was a confidant of Osama bin Laden, also appeared in court in New York, charged with conspiring with al-Qaeda against U.S. citizens in relation to the 1998 U.S. embassy attacks.

Bary was also charged with murder in connection with large-scale bombing attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.

The three men were flown to the United States overnight on a Justice Department Gulfstream jet, after being handed over to U.S. custody on a British air force base, RAF Mildenhall.

A separate flight from the same base delivered two other men, Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan, to Connecticut to face charges in relation to operating Azzam Publications, which is alleged to have supplied material to violent Islamist groups operating in the Russian province of Chechnya and to the Taliban.

Bary, Fawwaz, Ahmad and Ahsan entered pleas of not guilty Saturday, according to the Associated Press. Masri has not entered a plea.

The five men each face life sentences if convicted. They were held in British prisons while their extradition cases proceeded through British and European courts.

The United States and Britain agreed on a new extradition treaty in 2003 intended to simplify and expedite the process.

“This has been a lengthy process, but the government’s commitment to presenting this case to a jury during a fair and open trial has never wavered,” U.S. Attorney David B. Fein said of the Connecticut cases. “The allegations contained in the indictments, which include promotion of terrorism and conspiracy to murder persons living abroad, are as serious today as when they were initially charged.”

The indictment against Ahmad, 38, and Ahsan, 33, alleges the men worked to supply funds, military equipment and training to terrorist groups. Ahmad is also alleged to have been found in possession of previously classified information on the movements of a U.S. battle group en route to the Middle East.

Ahmad’s extradition in particular was subject to a high-profile campaign in Britain aimed at securing a trial there rather than the United States. British prosecutors found insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution against Ahmad in that country.

A petition seeking a British trial for Ahmad, a British citizen, on the prime minister’s official Number 10 Web site, secured more than 149,000 signatures. It spurred a debate in Parliament on whether Britain’s extradition treaty with the United States required additional safeguards before an extradition is granted.

Home Secretary Theresa May is set to respond in coming weeks to several official reviews of the extradition treaty.

Following his defeat in his final legal appeal earlier in the week, Ahmad said in a statement: “Today I have lost my 8 year and 2 month battle against extradition to the U.S. . . . By exposing the fallacy of the UK’s extradition arrangements with the US, I leave with my head held high having won the moral victory.”

By contrast, the extradition of Masri, a well-known case in Britain, has often been highlighted as evidence that the justice system in Britain and Europe moves too slowly. One report, from BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, suggested that Queen Elizabeth II had, in a rare intervention, spoken to Britain’s home secretary about Masri’s extradition, as she “had been upset that there was no way to arrest the radical cleric.”

Gardner later apologized for the revelation, which was in breach of a long-standing protocol regarding the monarch’s privacy.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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