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Jury selected for U.S. trial of one-eyed, handless Islamic cleric

Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, is seen leading prayers outside the North London Central Mosque, in Finsbury Park, north London in this J
Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, is seen leading prayers outside the North London Central Mosque, in Finsbury Park, north London in this J

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eight men and four women will decide the fate of Egyptian-born radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri at his trial on charges of assisting in a 1998 kidnapping in Yemen and plotting to establish a training camp for militants in the United States.

The 55-year-old imam, who is using his birth name, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, during the trial in federal court in New York, faces life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges against him. He was extradited from Britain in 2012 after spending several years in jail on charges of inciting his followers to kill non-believers.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest and lawyers for both the government and Abu Hamza settled on a jury of 12 and four alternates after several hours of questions intended to expose potential bias. Among the jurors selected were a retired bus dispatcher, a postal worker and a doctor originally from Sarajevo.

Forrest also ruled on Monday that a main government witness, Saajid Badat, can testify via closed-circuit television from Britain because he would face possible arrest if he traveled to the United States.

Badat, a former al Qaeda operative, plotted with Briton Richard Reid to blow up airplanes using shoe bombs in 2001 before backing out at the last minute. He pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with authorities in Britain, where he is living under an assumed name after serving six years in prison.

Badat's lawyer told Forrest last week that he would not come to the United States, where he remains under indictment for the shoe bomb plot.

Badat has testified via video in two terrorism-related trials in the United States, including that of Osama bin Laden son-in-law Suleiman Abu Ghaith, who was convicted by a jury in New York last month.

Lawyers for Abu Hamza had opposed the prosecutors' request to allow the video testimony, arguing that the government had only itself to blame for his unavailability.

Reid pleaded guilty in 2002 and is serving a life sentence.

FIERY ORATOR

Abu Hamza, a fiery orator, is missing one eye and both hands and is known for using a prosthetic metal hook. He has said he suffered the injuries while doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though authorities say they occurred while he fought with the mujahideen against troops from the Soviet Union.

In court on Monday, Abu Hamza wore a light gray shirt and pants. He used the hook on his right hand to hold a pen for note-taking during jury selection. As a condition of his extradition, he must be tried in civilian court and cannot face the death penalty.

The trial, which is expected to last four to five weeks, will be put on hold Tuesday and Wednesday for Passover. Opening statements are scheduled to take place on Thursday.

Abu Hamza, who has said he is innocent, has indicated he plans to testify in his own defense against charges including an attempt to set up a jihadist training camp in Bly, Oregon and raising money to send militants to train in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors also accuse him of providing assistance to a group of militants that took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998. Three Britons and an Australian were killed during a rescue mission by the Yemeni military.

While at the Finsbury Park mosque, the preacher had contacts with several high-profile militants, according to British officials. They included Reid as well as French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to charges of conspiring in the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

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