WASHINGTON -- A British court on Friday agreed to send five accused terrorists to the United States to stand trial for a wide range of alleged crimes, including the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa that killed more than 220 people.
The courts decision cleared the way for what will be among the highest profile terrorism prosecutions in the United States in recent years.
Among the suspects was Abu Hamza al Masri, a one-eyed radical Islamist preacher who is accused of supporting al Qaida. The Egyptian-born Masri, a striking figure with a bushy beard and a hook in place of his missing right hand, could appear before an American judge within days on terror charges that are unusual because many of the alleged crimes predate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Masri, 54, is sought by U.S. prosecutors for his alleged involvement in a deadly kidnapping in Yemen and in plans for a militant training camp in Oregon. His tirades against the West, including voicing support for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, reportedly inspired several high-profile militants, such as the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
On Friday, two United Kingdom High Court judges dismissed Masris request to delay proceedings in order for him to undergo a brain scan that his lawyers said would prove he was unfit for transfer, according to news reports. Masri didnt attend the court session.
The sooner he is put on trial, the better, the British judges said in their decision, according to the BBC.
U.S. authorities are extremely pleased with the courts decision, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement. Boyd called the extraditions a critical milestone in a multi-year effort by successive U.S. administrations to bring these terrorism suspects to justice.
Masri had fought his extradition for eight years, with lawyers arguing that his transfer to the United States would be detrimental to ailments such as depression and sleep deprivation stemming from his long stint in prison.
The judges countered that U.S. prisoners have access to good medical care. The BBC reported that all five suspects already had left prison and would be en route soon to the United States via civilian planes belonging to the Justice Department. Boyd said the men would be held in federal detention facilities, but he declined to say where.
We are confident that, like other terrorist defendants incarcerated in our federal prisons, these defendants can be housed securely with no danger to the public," Boyd said.
Under no circumstances will the men be sent to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba, for prosecution at the Pentagons war court, a Justice Department source told The Miami Herald on Friday, soon after extradition was approved.
"The United Kingdom has authorized their extradition to the United States only for prosecution on the charges pending against them in federal civilian courts, and, therefore, they may not be tried in military commissions," said the official, who answered questions on condition he not be named.
Their federal indictments date back to the Clinton and Bush administrations, said the official, who noted that several co-defendants and associates of the men now facing extradition from Britain already have been prosecuted and sentenced in terror cases in federal courts in Manhattan and Connecticut.