By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — A Muslim cleric who applauded the Sept. 11 attacks and called for nonbelievers to be put to death lost his final legal bid Friday to avoid being shipped to the United States to face terrorism charges.
The British High Court rejected Abu Hamza Masri’s petition to remain in this country for medical reasons and said that he could be sent to the U.S. immediately. The court said there was an “overwhelming public interest” in seeing the extradition carried out, adding that the imam could always be treated in the U.S. for his ailments, including depression and diabetes.
The ruling, which caps a long-running legal battle, appears to remove the last impediment to putting Masri, 54, on a plane across the Atlantic, which both British and American authorities wish to see happen as quickly as possible. The U.S. wants Masri to stand trial on allegations that he tried to establish a camp in Oregon to train recruits for the Afghan insurgency, and that he participated in the kidnapping of Western tourists in Yemen.
Besides Masri, the court approved the extradition of four other terrorism suspects, including two accused of involvement in the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“It is unacceptable that extradition proceedings should take more than a relatively short time, to be measured in months not years,” the two judges, John Thomas and Duncan Ouseley, wrote in their ruling.
The Egyptian-born Masri’s case has attracted the most attention. The cleric, famous for his militant sermons and distinctive look — he has only one eye and uses metal hooks for hands — has exasperated the government here for years with his continued appeals to British and European courts.
In April, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Masri’s extradition, a decision seen as an important victory for U.S.-European relations and cooperation in counterterrorism. Last month, the same court rejected Masri’s appeal to revisit the case.
But before relieved British officials could get him out of the country, Masri’s lawyers filed a last-ditch petition at the High Court, asking for extradition to be suspended because of their client’s deteriorating health.
In their decision Friday, the judges declared firmly that the door was now closed to any more appeals from Masri and the other four suspects.
“There is no appeal (of) our decision, and the Home Secretary will be free to make arrangements for the extradition of each of the claimants,” the judges wrote.
Both the U.S. Embassy in London and Britain’s Home Office issued statements welcoming the judges’ decision.
“We are now working to extradite these men as quickly as possible,” the Home Office said.
The ruling came as little surprise to those who followed the three days of hearings this week. Thomas and Ouseley were openly skeptical of Masri’s claims of debilitating illness and questioned why he had not raised the issue in previous court appeals.
In fact, if Masri is suffering from a degenerative condition, “the sooner he is put on trial the better,” they said.
Masri is currently serving a seven-year sentence in a British prison for inciting racial hatred. He earned notoriety here as the imam of a North London mosque, where he preached in favor of stoning gay people, called for non-Muslims to be put to death, and praised the men who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Earlier this year, in their appeal before the European Court of Human Rights, Masri and the other four men alleged that they would face degrading and abusive treatment in maximum-security prisons in the U.S.
But the court dismissed those concerns and upheld their extradition, averting a potential crisis in trans-Atlantic relations. A ruling in support of Masri would have been tantamount to a denunciation of the American legal and corrections systems, and could have led to a scaling-down of anti-terrorism cooperation.