NEW YORK — A partially blind extremist Egyptian-born preacher charged in multiple terrorism plots entered a U.S. court for the first time Saturday without the use of his arms, complaining that prosthetic hooks he uses were taken away as he and four other terrorism defendants were flown to New York overnight from London.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, 54, indicted under the name Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, entered a Manhattan courtroom under heavy security to face charges he conspired with Seattle men to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon and helped abduct 16 hostages, two of them American tourists, in Yemen in 1998.
Al-Masri came into court with both arms exposed through his short-sleeved blue prison shirt. His court-appointed lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, asked that his prosthetics be immediately returned “so he can use his arms.”
In the 1990s, al-Masri turned London’s Finsbury Park Mosque into a training ground for extremist Islamists, attracting men including Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
His court appearance followed soon after two other defendants brought to New York, Khaled al-Fawwaz and Adel Abdul Bary, entered not guilty pleas to charges that they participated in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
The attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. They were indicted in a case that also charged Osama bin Laden.
In New Haven, Connecticut, earlier in the day, Syed Talha Ahsan, 33, and Babar Ahmad, 38, entered not guilty pleas to charges that they provided terrorists in Afghanistan and Chechnya with cash, recruits and equipment. All five of the men face up to life in prison if they are convicted.
Al-Masri, a one-time nightclub bouncer, entered no plea, saying only “I do” when he was asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas whether he swears that his financial affidavit used to determine is he qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer was correct.
Shroff told Maas that al-Masri needed use of his arms. “Otherwise, he will not be able to function in a civilized manner.”
She also asked for a dictating machine, saying he can’t take notes, and the return of his diabetes medication and special shoes that prevent him from slipping. She said he will need a special diet in prison and a full medical evaluation.
His beard and hair white, al-Masri peered through glasses as he consulted with Shroff and another court-appointed lawyer, Jerrod Thompson-Hicks, in a proceeding that lasted less than 15 minutes.
Al-Masri has one eye claims to have lost his hands fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. His lawyers in England said he suffers from depression, chronic sleep deprivation, diabetes and other ailments.
Outside court, Shroff took note of her client’s condition, saying: “I don’t think he slept at all.” Still, she added, “He seemed very much like a gentleman.”
She said she did not believe he had eaten since arriving on a flight with the others at about 2:40 a.m.
Shroff and Thompson-Hicks also represented al-Fawwaz, 50, a citizen of Saudi Arabia. Thompson-Hicks said he was concerned whether his client would be properly treated for hypertension and high blood pressure. Attorney Andrew Patel, representing Bary, 52, an Egyptian citizen, said his client needed asthma medicine and treatment for other medical issues.
Patel, who declined to comment afterward, told Maas that Bary reserved the right to request bail in the future.
Four others who were tried in 2001 in the August 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are serving life sentences.
Ahsan, 33, and Ahmad, 38, were kept detained while they await trial in Connecticut, where an Internet service provider was allegedly used to host a website. Their lawyers declined to comment.
Ahmad made efforts to secure GPS devices, Kevlar helmets, night vision goggles, ballistic vests and camouflage uniforms, prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the extraditions “a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to eradicate terrorism.”
He added: “As is charged, these are men who were at the nerve centers of Al Qaeda’s acts of terror, and they caused blood to be shed, lives to be lost, and families to be shattered.”
Al-Masri is not the first ailing Egyptian-born preacher to be brought to Manhattan for trial. A blind sheik, Omar Abdel-Rahman, is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in 1995 in a plot to assassinate then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and in another to blow up New York landmarks, including the United Nations and two tunnels and a bridge linking New Jersey to Manhattan. Abdel-Rahman has numerous health issues, including heart trouble.
The overnight trip to the United States came after a multiyear extradition fight that ended Friday, when Britain’s High Court ruled that the men had no more grounds for appeal and could be sent to the U.S. immediately. The men have been battling extradition for between eight and 14 years.
“I’m absolutely delighted that Abu Hamza is now out of this country,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “Like the rest of the public I’m sick to the back teeth of people who come here, threaten our country, who stay at vast expense to the taxpayer and we can’t get rid of them.”
“I’m delighted on this occasion we’ve managed to send this person off to a country where he will face justice,” he added.
Al-Masri has been in a British jail since 2004 on separate charges of inciting racial hatred and encouraging followers to kill non-Muslims.
While al-Masri has been portrayed in the British media as one of the most dangerous men in the country, the case against Ahmad in Connecticut has raised concerns among legal experts and human rights advocates.
Some lawyers and lawmakers have expressed concerns because Britain agreed to extradite the London computer expert even though his alleged crimes were committed in Britain and British courts declined to prosecute him for lack of evidence. Ahmad and Ahsan are accused of running websites to support Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime, Chechen rebels and associated terrorist groups.