Hate Cleric Convicted on All Counts in NYC Terror Trial
MANHATTAN (CN) - Jurors on Monday found a London imam guilty of 11 terrorism charges stemming from three plots including the 1998 abduction of British and U.S. tourists in Yemen that left four people dead.
The double-amputee, one-eyed imam Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known by his Arabic name Abu Hamza al-Masri, was tried in New York this month after spending seven years in a UK prison for hate-speech crimes related to his fiery sermons from London's Finsbury Park mosque where he praised the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and endorsed the kidnapping and killing of non-Muslims.
The hate-speech offenses that led to his convictions in England would not have been considered crimes in the United States, and British authorities did not charge him with any violent conduct when they arrested him in 2004. Mustafa, who testified for three days during the four-week trial, denied participating in any violent acts and claimed that he was being prosecuted on "trumped up" charges for his radical views.
He faces life imprisonment at Sept. 9 sentencing hearing for the convictions entered in New York on Monday.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that Mustafa's case, like that of al-Qaida propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's before his, vindicated President Barack Obama's stated preference for federal courts over military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.
"With each efficiently delivered guilty verdict against a top al-Qaida-linked figure, the debate over how to best seek justice in these cases is quietly being put to rest," Holder said.
In a brief statement that he delivered on the steps of the Manhattan federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara invoked the recent dedication of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum a few blocks away.
"Abu Hamza, as the trial showed, attempted to portray himself as a preacher of faith, but he was instead a trainer of terrorists," Bharara said.
The remark echoed the prosecution's refrain during closing arguments of the "real Abu Hamza" as the one seen in videotaped sermons shown to the jury.
Defense attorneys fought the admission of videos of their client praising the destruction of the World Trade Center, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and derogatory remarks about kaffirs (infidels) as irrelevant to the charges.
Noting that Mustafa was not accused of participating in any of al-Qaida's major attacks, Mustafa's lawyers indicated that the emotional effect of such footage would give their client's grounds for appeal.
"The 'real Abu Hamza' is a multifaceted person like every other person in the world," attorney Joshua Dratel said. "He has many layers and unfortunately the lightning-rod aspect of one of those layers - his preaching - overwhelmed everything else in this case."
U.S. prosecutors had indicted Mustafa in 2004 for helping hostage-takers in the 1998 plot that took 16 British and U.S. tourists captive in Yemen. Mustafa admitted giving the militant group the satellite phone used in the abduction, which left four of the hostages dead, but he played down his role in it by calling himself the rebels' London-based "mouthpiece."
Two Americans who survived the kidnapping, Mary Quin and Margaret Thompson, testified against Mustafa before the case wrapped on May 14.
Thompson limped into court to recount how a bullet shattered her femur, and the titanium rod inserted into her leg left her gait uneven. Quin produced a 45-minute tape of her talking with Mustafa at his Finsbury Park mosque.
Calling that tape a "confession of this crime," U.S. prosecutor Ian Patrick McGinley said during closing arguments that the survivors deserve justice a decade and a half later.
"Don't let the passage of time diminish what he did," McGinley urged.
The jury's foreman, Westchester-based Howard Bailynson, said that the group established Mustafa's guilt on the Yemen-related charges early on after hearing the preacher tell Quin: "We never thought [the abduction] would be that bad," apparently referring to the deaths of the hostages.
In addition to convicting Mustafa on all charges related to that plot, the federal jury in New York also nailed him on counts alleging that he recruited men to enlist in U.S. and Afghan training camps to fight with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
One set of these charges involved a so-called "terror camp" in Bly, Ore., that sprang up and then fizzled out within a few months in late 1999. Prosecutors claimed that it was intended to be a depot for training fighters to send to Afghanistan alongside the Taliban. Defense attorneys likened the camp to an "Islamic commune" and the Cub Scouts.
Shortly before the verdict, jurors asked the judge to clarify the burden of proof for "substantial support" needed to convict Mustafa on one of these counts.
The foreman told reporters that the Bly camp seemed to have "started out as a fun kind of thing" before the arrival of two of Mustafa's congregants made it more threatening.
The last set of charges accused Mustafa of sending Feroz Abbasi, another Londoner, to an al-Qaida camp Afghanistan.
In 2002, Afghans handed Abbasi over to U.S. troops, who shipped him to the military prison in Guantanamo Bay before the Pentagon released him three years later without charges. Neither of the parties mentioned this fact throughout trial.
Although military lawyers could not tie Abbasi to a crime, a federal jury found that Mustafa supported terrorism by sending him to al-Qaida's al-Farouq training camp.
Mustafa appeared emotionless throughout each of the bailiff's 11 recitations of the word "guilty."
Defense lawyer Jeremy Schneider remarked that Mustafa had been anticipating that result.
"He had no illusions about what was going to happen in terms of evidence versus suspicion - whether it was going to be legitimate evidence about the charges, or whether it would be words that he said decades ago," Schneider said at a makeshift press conference.
The foreman said that the jury kept an "open mind" and gave Mustafa a "fair trial."