LONDON – Radical preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri and four other terror suspects were extradited from the U.K. after Britain's High Court ruled they had no more grounds for appeal in their yearslong battles to avoid facing charges in the United States.
Scotland Yard said Friday the suspects had been brought to an air force base in eastern England from Long Lartin Prison, where two planes provided by U.S. authorities were waiting to fly them to America. The aircraft took off shortly before midnight, Scotland Yard said.
The extraditions came just hours after a ruling at the High Court, where Judges John Thomas and Duncan Ouseley rejected last-ditch applications by al-Masri, Khaled al-Fawwaz, Babar Ahmad, Adel Abdul Bary and Syed Talha Ahsan, who have been battling extradition for between eight and 14 years.
Thomas said there were no grounds for any further delay, noting that it was "in the interest of justice that those accused of very serious crimes, as each of these claimants is in these proceedings, are tried as quickly as possible as is consistent with the interests of justice."
"It follows that their extradition to the United States of America may proceed immediately," the judge said in a ruling that was welcomed by the U.S. Embassy and prompted assurances from the British government to put the men on planes to the United States "as quickly as possible."
The five have sought to avoid extradition by raising concerns about human rights and the conditions they would face in a U.S. prison. Both British and European courts have ruled that they can be sent to the U.S. to face charges, but they sought last-minute injunctions from the High Court.
The suspects face a variety of charges stretching back several years.
The best known of the defendants is al-Masri, an Egyptian-born former nightclub bouncer who turned London's Finsbury Park Mosque into a training ground for radical Islamists during the 1990s. The mosque was once attended by Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
Al-Masri is wanted in the U.S. on charges that include conspiring with Seattle men to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon and helping abduct 16 hostages, two of them American tourists, in Yemen in 1998.
Ahmad and Ahsan face charges in Connecticut relating to websites that allegedly sought to raise cash, recruit fighters and seek equipment for terrorists in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Bary and al-Fawwaz were indicted with others, including Osama bin Laden, for their alleged roles in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa in 1998. Al-Fawwaz faces more than 269 counts of murder.
Al-Masri has been in a British jail since 2004 on separate charges of inciting racial hatred and encouraging followers to kill non-Muslims.
Lawyers for the 54-year-old preacher, who has one eye and hooks in place of hands he claims to have lost fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, argued in court that his deteriorating physical and mental health meant it would be "oppressive" to send him to a U.S. prison. They said he suffers from depression, chronic sleep deprivation, diabetes and other ailments.
The judges said his conditions could be treated in the U.S., and concluded that "there is nothing to suggest that extradition in this case would be unjust or oppressive."
Before Friday's ruling, a small group of Islamist protesters gathered outside the court to denounce the planned extraditions. A few scuffled briefly with police and one seized a placard reading "Sling His Hook" from a demonstrator expressing the opposite view.
While al-Masri has been portrayed in the British media as one of the most dangerous men in the country, the case of Babar Ahmad has raised concerns among legal experts and human rights advocates.
Ahmad, a London computer expert, is accused in the U.S. of running terrorist-funding websites. He and Ahsan both face charges including using a website to provide support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country.
Ahmad and Ahsan could be in court in Connecticut, where an Internet service provider was allegedly used to host one of the websites, on Saturday if they are extradited as planned from Britain.
A hearing was scheduled for Ahmad and Ahsan in U.S. District Court in New Haven on Saturday morning, U.S. Marshal Joseph Faughnan said Friday.
Some lawyers and lawmakers have expressed concerns about the case, because Britain agreed to extradite him even though his alleged crimes were committed in Britain and British courts declined to prosecute him for lack of evidence.
In prison since 2004, Ahmad has been held without charge for the longest period of any British citizen detained since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a statement read on his behalf outside court, Ahmad said his case had exposed flaws in U.S.-U.K. extradition arrangements. "I leave with my head held high, having won the moral victory," he said.
His father, Ashfaq Ahmad, said he would continue to fight for his son.
"It's not just one Babar Ahmad. Tomorrow there will be another Babar Ahmad and another one," he said.