By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK, Jan 14 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday rejected suggestions by lawyers for Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Islamic cleric awaiting trial on U.S. terrorism charges, to push back the trial date five months.
The Egyptian-born al-Masri, who is missing both hands and is prohibited from using his signature metal hook prosthetics outside of his jail cell, has pleaded not guilty to 11 criminal counts including hostage taking, providing material support to the al Qaeda network and conspiracy to provide goods and services to the Taliban.
He could face life in prison if found guilty at his trial, set to begin on Aug. 26.
Attorneys for al-Masri said they are overwhelmed by the volume of evidence they need to review before trial, a problem they said is exacerbated by unrelated trials they need to attend to in the near future.
Al-Masri's inability to help them review evidence on a computer because he has not been outfitted with new prosthetics, and extra restrictions the government has placed on al-Masri's ability to communicate from jail, have also hindered them, they said.
"We are just scratching the surface" of the evidence, al-Masri's attorney, Jeremy Schneider, told Judge Katherine Forrest in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
"It's just massive," said Schneider, who suggested the trial be pushed back to January 2014.
But Forrest, exasperated with the slow pace of the discovery process, remained committed to the August start date.
"This defendant is entitled to a speedy and public trial and he's going to get a speedy and public trial," said Forrest, who noted that she had originally wanted to start the trial in April.
The judge directed al-Masri's attorneys to write her a letter spelling out specific requests that could alleviate their concerns.
For eight years al-Masri fought extradition from Britain, where he had become a naturalized citizen, before authorities flew him to the United States last year along with four other men wanted on U.S. terrorism charges. He is being held in the maximum security section of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, steps away from the courthouse.
Al-Masri, who is also missing an eye, has said he sustained his injuries in Afghanistan during humanitarian work in the 1980s. He has asked the court to refer to him by his birth name, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Nick Zieminski)