Dramatic Testimony in Terrorism Trial of Abu Hamza in New York
MANHATTAN (CN) - The handless, one-eyed imam accused of aiding the 1998 hostage-taking of British and U.S. tourists in Yemen denied playing any role in that plot, minutes after one of his alleged victims confronted him with what appeared to be a taped confession.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, looked somewhat puzzled when the bailiff gestured for him to raise his right hand on Wednesday to take the oath before his testimony. He became a double-amputee in Afghanistan decades earlier, though reports vary as to whether he sustained his injuries fighting the Soviet Union or working on a peacetime roads project.
Raising the stump of his right arm, Mustafa had a bemused look as he finished the swearing in ritual and then testified in a string of curt denials to his lawyer's summary of the charges against him. His first hour of testimony did not go into those allegations in detail. Instead, attorneys asked him about his upbringing in Egypt, his study of engineering, his immigration to London and his views on Islam.
Questioning began with lawyer Joshua Dratel asking: "Did you participate in a kidnapping in Yemen in 1998?"
"No," Mustafa replied.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, one of the victims of that abduction presented powerful evidence to the contrary.
Mary Quin, a dual-citizen New Zealander and U.S. businesswoman, recounted being held hostage, grabbing an AK-47 from a captor she called "purple skirt," fleeing across the desert to the Yemeni military and confronting Mustafa in his London mosque.
Quin, like her travel companion Margaret Thompson, who testified before her, shared a vivid account of armed gunmen commandeering the convoy of tourists approaching the seaside city of Aden. Both spoke of the hostage-takers' hunt for tourists holding U.S. passports.
The lead kidnapper, Abu Hassan, discovered that Quin turned over only her New Zealand passport to hide her U.S. citizenship from her captors, she said.
She testified that Abu Hassan barked, "Mary. Who is Mary?"
"Purple skirt" had a practice of tormenting his captors by pushing a gun against them or firing around them, she said.
Quin told the jury that she eventually won a "tug-of-war" for his AK-47 when she noticed he had been injured in crossfire with Yemeni soldiers, to whom she ran to safety. She said she later sought to interview Mustafa as research for a book that she published under the name "Kidnapped in Yemen."
"I was curious about who the kidnappers were and what the purpose was," she said.
Her research took her to Mustafa's "small, nondescript" office in the Finsbury Park mosque in London. She said the imam leaned back in his chair when she revealed she was one of the kidnapping victims.
"I'm surprised you would come here," he said, according to her testimony. "Very surprised."
Quin said he allowed her to record their 45-minute conversations.
The courtroom strained to hear the scratchy recording, complicated by both of their heavy accents. Jurors read transcripts, and prosecutors highlighted portions that helped them with their case.
Phone records previously tied Mustafa to purchasing the satellite phone the hostage-takers used, and speaking to them repeatedly on the day of the incident.
Quin's recording shows Mustafa admitting to the purchase, and then drawing back.
Speaking about the phone, Mustafa said, "It came from outside."
"From you?" Quin pressed.
"Yeah, perhaps," Mustafa replied.
Mustafa justified the taking of hostages by saying, "Islamically, it is a good thing to do"
"It is?" Quin asked.
"Yeah, Islamically, it is a good thing," he continued. "What basically ... We had been giving warnings, 'Don't come. Don't come.'"
Mustafa's group, Supporters of Shariah, sent out a communiqué bearing his name warning tourists away from the area of Yemen where the tourists entered, and urging Muslims to support the "Army of Aden."
Prosecutors claim that Mustafa supported the hostage-taking to urge the Yemeni government to release his son and stepson, who were arrested for plots against the state.
Mustafa was talking about lead hostage-taker Abu Hassan in the recording when he said: "He phoned the government. He knew we got some people. Release some our, some people immediately, and we will release your people immediately," according to Quin.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick McGinley asked Quin: "Did he ever express regret for the four people that died?"
"No, he did not express regret," she replied.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Dratel pointed to other excerpts of the transcript showing Mustafa calling himself a "mouthpiece" and denying any operational role with the kidnappers.
Mustafa is also accused of conspiring to set up a Taliban training camp in Bly, Ore., and sending men to fight with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The Oregon camp fizzled out in a few months in late 1999, and the man he allegedly sent to train with al-Qaida, Feroz Abbasi, was released from Guantanamo Bay without charges in 2005.
Prosecutors have shown Mustafa giving a speech calling it necessary to lie to the kaffir, or unbelievers. His attorney tried to play down the impression that he would be willing to bend the truth in the United States, by engaging him in a theological discussion about the origin of the term.
Placing a Koranic verse into evidence, Mustafa said that the term meant "person who covers the truth."
"I give my oath," Mustafa said. "I'm no stranger to prison."
In 2004, Mustafa was charged and ultimately convicted of hate-speech crimes that kept him incarcerated until his extradition to the United States, where he has remained in a federal prison in New York. He could face the rest of his life behind bars if convicted of the conspiracies.
"If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and belief, I don't want it," he said.
His testimony is expected to continue through the beginning of next week.