PARIS -- Europe's human rights court ruled yesterday that Britain can send a radical Muslim cleric and four other suspects to the United States to face terrorism charges in a case that has been closely watched as an indicator of whether tough U.S. prisons could influence extradition policy.
The court said Britain would not violate EU human rights rules by extraditing the suspects, who could face life sentences in a maximum-security prison.
The long-running legal battle centered on Mustafa Kamal Mustafa, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, considered Britain's most recognizable extremist, thanks in part to his fiery rhetoric and his hook for a hand. He has long been a figure of tabloid newspaper scorn.
Al-Masri and the other men had argued that in the United States they could face prison conditions and jail terms that would expose them to "torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" in breach of the European human rights code.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, rejected those claims, saying in its ruling that "detention conditions and length of sentences of five alleged terrorists would not amount to ill-treatment if they were extradited to the U.S.A."
The court said, however, that the five "should not be extradited" until its judgment becomes final, a move that could take months, or until a possible appeals process ends.
It also put off ruling on the case of a sixth suspect, Haroon Rashid Aswat. The court said it needs further information about his schizophrenia and the conditions of his detention at a British hospital.
The suspects are accused of crimes such as setting up a terrorist camp in the United States and raising funds for terrorists.
The decision capped off years of legal wrangling, during which the British government has sharply criticized the European court over repeated delays. One of the men awaiting extradition has been held in a British jail for eight years without charge.
It also comes at a sensitive time because British extradition policy recently suffered a major setback when the European court ruled that the UK could not deport another radical cleric, Abu Qatada, to Jordan.
British Prime Minister David Cameron he is "very pleased" with the court's decision. "It is quite right that we have proper legal processes, although sometimes one can get frustrated with how long they take," he said.