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Prosecutors call London imam's testimony lies as U.S. trial ends

A file photograph dated February 7, 2003 shows Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza (2L) outside the North London Mosque at Finsbury Park surround
A file photograph dated February 7, 2003 shows Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza (2L) outside the North London Mosque at Finsbury Park surround

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri engineered an international campaign to commit violent jihad, despite his testimony that he never conspired to harm anyone, a U.S. prosecutor said on Wednesday as Abu Hamza's trial drew to a close.

"On that witness stand, the defendant was trying to sell a version of himself, a version that contradicts everything else we've seen during this trial," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian McGinley told jurors in New York. "Don't be fooled by his testimony."

But Abu Hamza's attorney, Jeremy Schneider, said the government's case boiled down to incendiary statements that gained the preacher a reputation among radical Muslims, rather than anything he actually did.

"A lot, if not the majority, of their evidence was his words, not his deeds," Schneider said during his closing argument.

The government has accused Abu Hamza of providing advice and a satellite phone to Yemeni militants who took Western tourists hostage in 1998, a kidnapping that led to the deaths of four tourists. He is also charged with sending two men to Oregon to set up a jihadist training camp and with dispatching an associate to Afghanistan to aid al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Abu Hamza's words frequently have taken center stage during the four-week trial, as prosecutors highlighted his praise for former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his emphasis on physical training as a religious obligation.

"The defendant's not on trial for his words," McGinley said. "But his statements are important, because the language that we use, it shows what we're thinking."

Schneider told jurors he was not worried about the evidence but about whether the prosecution's appeal to their emotions would lead them astray.

"Can someone who has ranted and raved for years about anti-American statements get a fair trial in front of a New York jury in the shadows of the World Trade Center?" he said.

Abu Hamza testified that he spoke with the Yemeni militants' leader, Abu Hassan, both before and during the kidnapping but that he was unaware of the plan in advance and only became involved to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution.

McGinley scoffed at that claim. Abu Hamza's stepson had been arrested in Yemen five days before the hostage-taking, he said, and Abu Hassan planned to exchange the tourists for prisoners.

"They had a seven-minute conversation on the night before the kidnapping," he said. "What do you think they were discussing?"

Schneider spent the first part of his argument ridiculing the Oregon camp, where prosecutors claim Abu Hamza sent two men to teach others how to fight.

The men were not engaged in jihad training, he said, instead spending their time on target practice, campfires and horse riding. The only armed patrols were used to protect sheep from coyotes, he added.

"They were coyote-protecting Cub Scouts," he said.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman)

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