Accused British jihadist imam Abu Hamza al Masri denied aiding terror plots as he told a jury in federal court in Manhattan Wednesday that there were three reasons a good Muslim could lie, but none of them applied to his testimony.
"I give my oath," said Abu Hamza, a one-eyed double amputee who had raised his handless right arm and swore to tell the truth a few minutes earlier. "I'm no stranger to prison. If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and beliefs, I do not want it."
Abu Hamza, 56, also known as Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, is charged with aiding kidnappers who abducted 16 tourists in Yemen in 1998, conspiring to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon, and providing support to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Once a charismatic cleric at London's Finsbury Park mosque, Abu Hamza's fiery sermons, pamphlets and videos, prosecutors say, put him at the center of radical Muslim ferment in the 1990s. He was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2004 and extradited to the United States in 2012.
A bearish man with a thick white beard, Abu Hamza testified with a thick British accent in a soft voice, wearing a blue prison smock and reading glasses but no prosthetics on the red stumps of his arms.
He said he worked as a strip-club bouncer to finance his studies for a civil engineering degree after coming to London. His path to radical Islam, he said, began when his English wife decided to convert so they could spend more time together studying the Koran, and the sessions brought home the "hypocrisy" of his strip-club lifestyle.
But during a brief, one-hour appearance that is expected to continue Thursday, he said his view of Islam did not demand violence toward nonbelievers, and he denied the government's accusations in response to questions from his lawyer about the charged crimes and plots.
"Never," he repeated more than a dozen times.
Earlier Wednesday, prosecutors closed their case with testimony from Mary Quin, one of the tourists taken hostage by Islamists in Yemen in 1998. Four members of her tour group died when Yemeni troops attacked them. Prosecutors say Abu Hamza provided a satellite phone and advice to the kidnappers.
Quin, at the time a Xerox executive, later confronted Abu Hamza at his mosque about the incident and taped the interview. Narrating the 45-minute recording for jurors, she said Abu Hamza told her no one was supposed to get hurt, but it was a legitimate effort to get the Yemeni government to release Islamist prisoners.
"Islamically, it is a good thing to do," he told her on the tape.
Quin said Abu Hamza, whose own son had been arrested in Yemen around the time of the kidnapping, dodged questions about whether he knew of the plot in advance. Prosecutor Ian McGinley asked if he ever expressed regret for the deaths.
"No," she said.