By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former al Qaeda operative in Britain told a U.S. judge on Friday that he feared he would be arrested if he traveled to the United States to testify for the prosecution in the upcoming trial of the one-eyed, handless Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.
"I would like to testify remotely from the U.K.," Saajid Badat, who appeared via video feed from an undisclosed location in the United Kingdom, told U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest during a hearing in Manhattan federal court. Badat was indicted in Massachusetts in 2004 for plotting to detonate explosives aboard airplanes.
Federal prosecutors want Badat to testify against al-Masri, an Egyptian-born cleric who is accused of assisting al Qaeda and is expected to be tried on terrorism charges on April 14. Prosecutors have said that Badat's testimony could help prove that al-Masri was working to assist al Qaeda.
On Friday, Forrest said it was very important that Badat come to New York for al-Masri's trial, but said she could "make no promises" that he would not be arrested.
Defendants in U.S. criminal trials have a constitutional right to have witnesses testify against them in their presence, with some exceptions, the judge said.
Badat, who appeared without a lawyer, said he would have to seek legal advice and agreed to inform Forrest by April 10 whether he had changed his mind.
Forrest said she may allow Badat to testify from the United Kingdom if he does not agree to come to the United States.
Badat pleaded guilty in Britain for plotting with fellow Briton Richard Reid to detonate bombs hidden in shoes aboard airplanes. Badat, who ultimately pulled out of the plan, was sentenced to 13 years in prison but his sentence was later reduced after he cooperated with authorities and he has since been released.
Last month, Badat testified via live video feed from the United Kingdom in the trial of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden convicted for conspiring to kill Americans.
In that trial, Abu Ghaith's lawyers sought to undermine Badat by portraying him as someone willing to testify for U.S. authorities so they would not seek his extradition to the United States.
Al-Masri, who was present at Friday's hearing, has pleaded not guilty to several charges, including that he provided material support to al Qaeda by trying to set up a training camp in Oregon. He has indicated he plans to testify at his trial.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Lisa Shumker)