Washington - The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Britain could legally extradite five suspects wanted in the United States on terrorism charges, including Abu Hamza al-Masri, an inflammatory Egyptian-born cleric incarcerated in Britain but accused in a range of unprosecuted anti-American plots that date back 14 years.
In a major precedent that appeared to greatly ease extradition of terrorism suspects — an issue that has surfaced repeatedly since Britain and the United States agreed to a new, more flexible extradition treaty after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — the court ruled that the human rights of the defendants would not be violated by their incarceration in a maximum security American prison. Some legal experts called the ruling stunning, considering the court's history of wariness on the human rights standards of American justice.
How quickly any transfers might take place is uncertain. The court, based in Strasbourg, France, said the defendants could not be sent to the United States before further legal procedures were completed, and gave them three months to seek one last hearing at the European court. But legal experts said it was far from sure that the court's Grand Chamber, a plenary body that can overrule findings like the one handed down on Tuesday, would accept a further appeal, and Theresa May, the British home secretary, said the government would move "as soon as possible" once the last legal steps had been completed.
Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the ruling. "It is quite right that we have proper legal processes, although sometimes one can get frustrated with how long they take," The Press Association news agency quoted him as saying.
Based on charges filed in the United States, Mr. Hamza and the four other suspects could get life sentences without parole in maximum security. The suspects had all objected to being incarcerated at a "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo., on the grounds that conditions there infringed their human rights. Such conditions include concrete furniture, timed showers, tiny cell windows and sharply restricted communications with the outside world, including family members.
But the judges found that conditions did not breach European laws prohibiting "inhuman and degrading treatment," concluding that inmates, "although confined to their cells for the vast majority of their time," were provided with "services and activities" that "went beyond what was provided in most prisons in Europe."
However, they also said it was unlikely Mr. Masri, who is in his 50s, would end up there, because of his disabilities. Mr. Masri has one eye and a steel hook in place of his right hand. The court referred to the amputation of his "forearms," suggesting that he may have lost parts of both. Accounts differ on how he sustained his injuries: he said he was caught in a land-mine explosion while working as a road surveyor near Jalalbad in Afghanistan after the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989, but others have said he was handling explosives that detonated.
Born Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, Mr. Masri was the principal preacher at the Finsbury Park mosque in London at a time when it was regarded as a hotbed of radicalism and is serving a seven-year sentence in Britain for inciting racial hatred and urging followers to commit murder. Britain considers him an Egyptian citizen, but he maintains that he has lost that status.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Finsbury mosque drew a succession of Islamic militants who became notorious later for their involvement in terrorist attacks. One was Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who is serving a life term in the Colorado prison for his attempt to down an American airliner in mid-Atlantic in 2002. Another is Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of having trained to be the hypothetical "20th bomber" in the Sept. 11 attacks. He is also at the Colorado prison.
Mr. Masri, the son of an Egyptian army officer, arrived in Britain as a student in 1979. He married a Briton and raised a large family. He studied for an engineering diploma in Brighton, then left for Afghanistan as the war against the occupying Soviet forces ended, avoiding involvement in the fighting.
After he was injured, he returned to Britain and found a job as a janitor, but lived mainly off state welfare benefits, according to British newspaper accounts. Those accounts also said that he used some of the government payments, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to amass a small real-estate empire in the Finsbury area.
Mr. Masri and the other suspects had been indicted in the United States between 1999 and 2006 on charges relating variously to hostage-taking in Yemen and attacks on American embassies in East Africa. Mr. Masri faces 11 counts relating to hostage-taking in 1998, calling for holy war in Afghanistan in 2001 and participation in an attempt to establish a militant training camp at Bly, Ore., between June 2000 and December 2001. American prosecutors say, the 16 hostages, all tourists, included two Americans. Four hostages — three Britons and one Australian — were killed and several others were wounded when the Yemeni Army tried to rescue them. The four other suspects are Seyla Talha Ahsan, Adel Abdul Bary, Khaled Al-Fawwaz, and Babar Ahmad.
Mr. Bary and Mr. Al-Fawwaz were charged with multiple murders in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 200 people. Mr. Ahsan, like Mr. Ahmad, is charged with providing support to terrorists and conspiracy-related offenses.
Mr. Ahmad, 37, a computer expert accused of being a fund-raiser for terrorist causes, has been held in prison in Britain without a trial for almost eight years. In an unusual interview last week with the BBC, conducted in a special detention unit for terrorism-related extradition cases, Mr. Ahmad declared: "I have been in prison now for nearly eight years without trial. I am facing extradition to the U.S. to spend the rest of my life in solitary confinement. I have never been questioned about the allegations against me. I have never been shown the evidence against me."
"I do not hold the Americans responsible for anything that has happened to me," he said, "but I think it is fair to say that I am fighting for my life — and I am running out of time.
"Eight years without trial is like living on death row. It's like you are living every day for a tomorrow that might or might not come. And it has been very, very difficult. It's just not knowing: There are prisoners all around me who have release dates. Even if it is 10 years ahead of them, they have a date. Detention without trial is the most unimaginable type of psychological torture."
The case of a sixth suspect was postponed. The court delayed a ruling on Haroon Rashid Aswat, accused of being Mr. Masri's co-conspirator, while awaiting further details of his psychological condition.
The outcome announced on Tuesday contrasted sharply with a ruling by the same European court in January that Abu Qatada, a radical Islamic preacher regarded as one of Al Qaeda's main inspirational leaders in Europe, could not be sent from Britain to his native Jordan because his trial there would be tainted by evidence obtained by torture.
The preacher, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, was subsequently released on strict bail terms in February.
The ruling on Tuesday also played into a tangled debate in Britain over its extradition treaty with the United States, which is widely perceived and depicted here as giving American prosecutors unwarranted powers to demand the extradition of British suspects whose crimes were not committed on American soil.
Two particular cases relate to Britons accused of infringing on American laws from their computers at home. One of them is that of Gary McKinnon, who was accused of hacking into American military computers, and the other is that of Richard O'Dwyer, accused of offenses under American copyright laws.
The latest ruling "still leaves open the case of whether the U.S. is the right place to try all of these suspects," said Sarah Ludford, a spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partner, arguing that those "whose alleged crimes were perpetrated from their computers at home in Britain should face home-grown justice.