By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - London imam Abu Hamza al-Masri took the stand on Wednesday in his U.S. terror trial, denying he had ever aided al Qaeda or other militant groups.
"Did you ever give material support for terrorism?" his defense lawyer, Joshua Dratel, asked him at the start of his testimony in New York.
"Never," the preacher replied in a deep baritone.
Abu Hamza is accused of providing advice and a satellite phone to Yemeni militants who took a group of Western tourists hostage in 1998.
He is also charged with dispatching two men to Oregon to establish a jihadist training camp and sending money and followers to Afghanistan to help al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The one-eyed, handless cleric became known for inflammatory sermons delivered at the Finsbury Park mosque in London; he was jailed in the United Kingdom for several years for inciting violence.
On Wednesday, Abu Hamza described his upbringing in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was born into a non-observant Muslim family.
He moved to London, he said, to "pursue my dreams."
"I wanted to see the world," he said. "I always looked forward to the Western life, American-style."
While pursuing a career in civil engineering, Abu Hamza worked several jobs, including as a strip club bouncer.
He began studying Islam at the urging of his then-wife, a British woman, who thought it would let the spend more time together. Reading the Koran, he said, made him realize he was living "on the wrong side of morality."
At one point, after Abu Hamza explained the circumstances under which Muslims are permitted to lie, Dratel asked whether he was testifying truthfully. Abu Hamza replied that he took his witness oath seriously.
"I know prison," Abu Hamza said. "If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and belief, I don't want it."
He is expected to remain on the stand for several more days.
The testimony began shortly after prosecutors finished their case. The final government witness was Mary Quin, one of the tourists taken hostage in Yemen.
Quin, a dual American-New Zealand citizen, described her daring escape during a desert gun battle between the kidnappers and the Yemeni military. When her captor was shot, she fought him for control of his AK-47, eventually stepping on his head to wrest away the gun.
Four captives died during the rescue.
Two years later, she confronted Abu Hamza for a book she wrote about her ordeal. The jurors heard excerpts from their conversation, which Quin recorded with Abu Hamza's permission.
"Islamically, it is a good thing to do," he said of the kidnapping.
He acknowledged that he had spoken with Abu Hassan, the militants' leader, on the day of the kidnapping. But he would not confirm that he had provided them a satellite phone, saying only, "Yeah, perhaps," when Quin asked him.
Abu Hamza's lawyers have argued that he intended to act as a mediator to help negotiate the hostages' release.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Steve Orlofsky)