World Bulletin/News Desk
U.S. prosecutors will aim for a second high-profile conviction in weeks when a one-eyed, handless cleric goes on trial on Monday on charges that he provided support for al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The government has also accused Abu Hamza al-Masri of conspiring in a 1998 kidnapping of tourists in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of three Britons and an Australian, and trying to set up a training camp in Oregon.
The Egyptian-born preacher, who faces life in prison if convicted, told a judge at a pretrial hearing on Wednesday that he is innocent.
The trial, which is expected to last about a month, comes less than three weeks after a jury in the same New York courthouse convicted Suleiman Abu Ghaith, one of Osama bin Laden's sons-in-law, of terrorism-related charges.
The Abu Ghaith verdict prompted a visit by Attorney General Eric Holder to New York, where he told reporters the case should help end the debate over whether militants should be tried as criminal defendants in civilian court or as combatants in military tribunals.
Abu Hamza, 55, was extradited in 2012 to the United States from Britain, where he had been jailed for inciting hatred.
Under the terms of British and European court rulings authorizing his extradition, he must be tried in civilian court.
The imam, who in court is using his birth name, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, is missing an eye and both hands, injuries he says took place while he was carrying out humanitarian work in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In London, he became known for wearing a metal hook on one arm.
Authorities say he sustained the injuries fighting for the mujahideen against the Soviet Union.
A powerful orator, Abu Hamza allegedly had contacts with several well-known militants at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, according to British officials, including Briton Richard Reid, who was caught with explosives hidden in his shoe in 2001.
As part of their case, prosecutors plan to employ Abu Hamza's own incendiary words against him. At a hearing this week, they told U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest they intend to play for the jury a series of recordings of Abu Hamza praising bin Laden.
Abu Hamza's defense lawyers argued that the recordings have little relevance to the charges against him and will inflame the jury.
In a handwritten letter to Forrest in February, Abu Hamza said he planned to testify in his own defense.
On Wednesday, at the final pretrial hearing, Forrest asked Abu Hamza whether he understood that he could seek a plea deal if he is guilty and does not want to proceed to trial.
"I think I'm innocent," he told the judge, saying the trial represented "a chance to defend myself."
The government also plans to call as a witness former al Qaeda operative Saajid Badat, who plotted with Reid to blow up airplanes before Badat backed out at the last minute. Prosecutors say Badat would testify that Abu Hamza ordered him and another man to travel to Afghanistan for training.
Badat previously pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with British authorities, serving six years in prison in Britain. He has testified at two similar trials in the United States, including that of Abu Ghaith.Last Mod: 10 Nisan 2014, 11:00