Abu Hamza’s Extradition: European Court Approves Moving Terror Suspect to the United States

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Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses followers during Friday prayer in near Finsbury Park mosque in north London, March 26, 2004.

Five terror suspects, including the radical Islamic preacher Abu Hamza, can be extradited to the United States to face trial, despite their lawyers’ assertion that they would face “torture” at the hands of U.S. authorities. The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that the men were not likely to endure “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” while in U.S. custody. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “very pleased” with the news.

“It is quite right that we have proper legal processes, although sometimes one can get frustrated with how long they take,” he said at a press conference during his tour of Japan and Southeast Asia. “I think it is very important that the deportation and expulsion arrangements [work] promptly and properly, particularly when people are accused of very serious crimes.”

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There’s no doubting the men in question face some very serious charges. Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born British citizen who turned London’s Finsbury Park mosque into a recruitment center for violent jihad, is already serving a seven-year sentence for inciting racial hatred. Washington has described him as a “terrorist facilitator with a global reach,” and wants him on 11 charges related to the kidnapping of 16 hostages in Yemen in 1998 and conspiring to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon. It’s unclear how Hamza lost his right hand—he now relies on a hook prosthesis—and one eye. CNN has attributed it to Hamza tackling a landmine in Afghanistan, while others theorize the injuries resulted from making improvised explosives. Among the others facing extradition is Babar Ahmad, a 36-year old computer whiz, who faces allegations he ran a website that raised funds for Islamic extremists.

The British government has long hoped to cooperate with the U.S. authorities. But the European Court of Human Rights halted proceedings in July 1010 to assess whether the U.S. ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” afforded the men the same protection they would have under European law, which states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The court also examined whether putting them at risk of life imprisonment without parole and potentially subjecting them to solitary confinement amounted to a violation of their human rights. The U.S. previously issued written assurances that it would not place the suspects before military tribunals—as was the case at Guantanamo Bay—and that they would not impose the death penalty.

As part of its judgment, the court requested statements from the U.S. Department of Justice. In its ruling, the court determined that there would be no violation of human rights or ill-treatment “as a result of conditions at ADX Florence“—a “supermax” prison in Colorado. Built in 1994, the prison is home to the country’s most dangerous criminals. Most have been transferred to the facility after officers elsewhere deemed them lethal and at high-risk for escape. Inmates at the facility spend more than 22 hours of each day inside their cell. It’s currently home to “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and Richard Reid—the “shoe bomber” who attempted to bring down a commercial airliner by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes.

Each of the men has three months to appeal to the European court’s grand chamber. Nazia Ahmad, the sister of one of the accused, says her brother will appeal. “We’re very disappointed. We’re going to carry on fighting for Babar,” she told the Guardian. “His case should have been dealt with by the authorities in the UK. They gathered the evidence, they gave it to the U.S., and they should have looked at it and decided if he should be put on trial in the U.K.”

The court’s ruling is a vote of confidence that U.S. prisons conform to European standards—even when terror suspects are involved. In January, the same court ruled differently in the case of radical Islamist Abu Qatada, whom a judge once described as Osama bin Laden’s “right hand man in Europe.” In its ruling, the court said Britain could not deport Qatada to Jordan to face trial because any evidence used against him may have been extracted through torture. Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May is no doubt keen to find a solution: a judge freed Qatada from jail in February after he served more than six years without a trial. May was openly critical of that decision.  She has been in talks with Jordanian officials to guarantee a fair trial for Qatada, but no formal decision has thus far been announced.

Al-Qaeda, however, published a statement on jihadist forums threatening to “open the gates of evil” onto “Britain and its citizens everywhere” if the U.K. extradites Qatada. “We warn the British government against extraditing Sheikh Abu Qatada to Jordan,” the statement said. It called on Britain to “act with reason and wisdom…or it will regret it.”

(MORE: Read more about Abu Qatada)

For critics of the European court, the divergent judgments in the Hamza and Qatada cases point to the same problem: that a court based outside of Britain has jurisdiction over the country’s decisions. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, former American ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said London should renounce jurisdiction of the court. “It’s a question of what do British people want to do?” he said. “Do you want to be an independent nation, or do you want to be a county in Europe?”

Before they answer, Britons will want to look West, too. A series of high-profile cases has given the impression that it’s far easier to extradite British citizens to the United States than vice versa—what MPs have dubbed “one-way traffic.” Those cases include that of Gary McKinnon—a man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and faces extradition for hacking into Pentagon computers. He admits to the crime, but said he did so looking for evidence of UFOs. And there’s also Richard O’Dwyer—a 23-year old who is accused of copyright infringement. His extradition led one journalist to write that, “British citizens are being handed over faster than quarter-pounders at a McDonald’s drive-thru emporium in New Jersey.” It’s a sentiment shared by politicians, too. On March 30 the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee called for an overhaul of the 2003 extradition treaty with the U.S. It wants to see judges decide where the cases are heard, and to re-write the text so that it is more balanced.

Dominic Raab, a Conservative MP, was pleased with the European court’s decision to allow the extradition of Hamza and the other terror suspects to the U.S. But his approval seems somewhat tempered by the possibility the court could have ruled the other way—a reality propped up by the court’s previous delays. “To say that we couldn’t extradite serious terrorist players to the U.S. because they may get a long sentence in difficult, tough prison conditions would be ludicrous,” he told the BBC. “It would be ludicrous as a moral matter but it would also undermine the whole basis for counter-terrorism extradition to the U.S.”

(MORE: Britain Seethes as Radical Islamic Cleric Released)

Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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