NEW YORK (Reuters) - One-eyed radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri pleaded not guilty to 11 criminal counts in federal court on Tuesday after Britain extradited him to the United States last week to face trial and a possible life sentence on terrorism charges.
U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan set a trial date of August 26, 2013, for the Egyptian-born preacher, who is missing both his hands and an eye - injuries he says he sustained during humanitarian work in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Hamza, 54, was accused in 2004 of participating in a 1998 hostage-taking in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of three Britons and an Australian. He is also charged with providing material support to the al Qaeda network by trying to set up a training camp in Oregon and with attempting to organize support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After an eight-year battle to avoid extradition, he was flown late on Friday to the United States along with four other men also wanted on U.S. terrorism charges.
Hamza made an initial appearance in federal court in Saturday but did not enter a plea at that time.
At Tuesday’s hearing, he again appeared without his prosthetic - a signature metal hook - that he wears because of his missing forearms.
Hamza pleaded not guilty to the 11 criminal counts that included hostage taking, providing material support to terrorists, and conspiracy charges. Hamza could face up to life in prison if convicted on the charges.
Hamza, through his attorney, asked that he be referred to as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, his name at birth, instead of Abu Hamza, his adopted moniker.
Jeremy Schneider, his court-appointed lawyer, told the judge that his client wished to enter “a plea of not guilty to that indictment.”
“Is that your plea, Mr. Mustafa?” the judge asked. “Yes, it is,” he answered.
In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters that the five terrorism suspects are “finally here.”
“Now they will face justice in American courts, and I think that’s a good thing,” Holder said.
Hamza lost his eight-year battle to avoid deportation on Friday after two London High Court judges refused to delay his departure. The European Court of Human Rights refused to stop Britain from extraditing Hamza and the four other men.
Under the terms of British and European court rulings authorizing the extradition, the men must be tried in U.S. civilian courts and federal prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty.
‘HE‘S NOT HAPPY’
After the 35-minute hearing, Schneider told reporters that he hoped the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons would find a solution to allow his client the use of his arms. The Bureau of Prisons oversees the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, where Hamza is jailed.
“He is a gentleman who needs help with his health,” Schneider said. “As you can imagine, he’s not happy that he’s in a situation like this without the use of his prosthetics.”
Also on Tuesday, two of the other defendants, Saudi native Khalid al-Fawwaz, 50, and Egyptian Adel Abdul Bary, 52, appeared in federal court in Manhattan. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan set a preliminary trial date of October 7, 2013, for the pair.
The two men had pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges stemming from the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Also on Saturday, the two other suspects wanted on U.S. terrorism charges pleaded not guilty in a New Haven, Connecticut federal court.
Hamza’s case was randomly assigned to Forrest, who joined the bench less than a year ago. This is her first high-profile terrorism case.
A Lebanese-born Swedish man, Oussama Abdullah Kassir, was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for helping to set up the militant camp in Oregon. U.S. authorities say Kassir and a third man, Haroon Rashid Aswat, were following Hamza’s orders. The training camp was never established.
Kaplan oversaw the closely watched trial of Tanzanian national Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was sentenced to life in prison in January 2011 for his role in the 1998 bombings.
The cases are U.S. v. Mustafa Kamel Mustafa and U.S. v. Khalid al-Fawwaz and Adel Abdul Bary, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Nos. 04-cr-00356 and 98-cr-1023.
Reporting by Basil Katz; Additional Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and David Ingram in Washington; Editing by Martha Graybow and Will Dunham