Britain sent a suspected radical Muslim preacher and four other alleged terrorists to U.S. soil before dawn Saturday under Bush administration era treaty negotiations that forbade them from being sent to Guantánamo for prosecution at a Pentagon tribunal.
Britain’s high court on Friday cleared the way for the overnight transfers of Abu Hamza al Masri, Khaled al Fawwaz, Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdul Bary and Syed Ahsan, five men who had been battling extradition for eight to 14 years. All five were getting federal court appearances on Saturday, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.
Masri allegedly turned London’s Finsbury Park Mosque into a training ground for radical Islamists during the 1990s but faced no charges in Britain. He was wanted in the U.S. on charges alleging he conspired to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon, and other crimes.
But under no circumstances could the men be sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for prosecution at the Pentagon’s war court, a Justice Department official 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 identified by name.
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 have already been prosecuted and sentenced in terror cases in federal courts in Manhattan and Connecticut.
To make sure they wouldn’t go to Guantánamo for prosecution, the British government specifically sought, and got, “binding commitments” between 2004 and 2008 regarding these five particular men, the official said. The negotiations, done as part of U.S.-U.K. treaty negotiations, made clear they “would only be tried in federal civilian court,” he added.
The U.S. Embassy in London added in a statement that the negotiations also ruled out death-penalty prosecutions in U.S. federal courts as a precondition of extradition.
"The U.K. government requested and received binding commitments from the U.S. that, if extradited, the defendants would only be subject to trial in federal civilian courts and that they would not be subject to the death penalty if convicted," the embassy said.
The Justice Department’s timetable of the negotiations indicates that the Bush administration committed to keeping them out of Guantánamo even before President Barack Obama took office. Obama has ordered his administration to halt transfers to the controversial prison in southeast Cuba and close it.
Two of the men, Ahmad and Ahsan, were already in the United States on Saturday morning, and slated for appearances before a federal court in New Haven, Conn. Masri and the other two got to New York's Southern District before dawn and were due before federal magistrates in New York City on Saturday.
Because the men were not facing charges in the United Kingdom, the transfer to U.S. soil prevented their release without charges in London.