A controversial Muslim religious leader has been freed on bail after he won an appeal in Britain against his deportation to Jordan, where he faces convictions over terrorist offences related to two alleged bomb plots.
Judge John Mitting granted Abu Qatada bail on Monday and said he would be freed from prison on Tuesday, despite a claim from a government lawyer that he poses a major security threat.
He was released, after serving seven years in British custody.
Britain has been attempting since 2001 to expel the Palestinian-born Jordanian, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, after he was convicted in his absence in Jordan over terror plots in 1999 and 2000.
Abu Qatada, dubbed Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, was to face a retrial if he was deported to Jordan.
Britain had insisted that it had won assurances from Jordan, including from Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who met David Cameron, UK prime minister, last week, over how Abu Qatada’s case would be handled.
But judges said there was a real risk that evidence obtained through torture would be used against him.
Abu Qatada’s release is subject to bail conditions including being allowed out of his house only between 08:00 and 16:00, having to wear an electronic tag, and being restricted in who he meets.
Angry media reaction
The British tabloid, The Sun ran with front-page headline “Abu Hiss”, a heckle aimed at “soft judge” Mitting while the Daily Mirror carried the headline “Laughing in our Faces” below a picture of Abu Qatada.
The Daily Telegraph called the decision “a mockery of justice”.
“Yet again, the extremist cleric – regarded as a serious threat to national security – has exposed the limitations of the British state to decide who can and cannot stay within its borders,” its editorial said.
“Why should Britain stand as guarantor for the rectitude of the Jordanian legal system? Would any other country in the world have been willing to demonstrate its judicial impotence in such a humiliating fashion?”
‘Most restrictive’ bail
In Monday’s ruling, Britain’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which handles major terrorism and deportation cases, said it was not convinced that Jordan would guarantee Abu Qatada a fair trial.
It endorsed the January ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which said that “not only is torture widespread in Jordan, so too is the use of torture evidence by its courts”.
Theresa May, UK interior secretary, struck back, saying her government “strongly disagrees” with the ruling and believes Mitting “applied the wrong legal test” in ruling in Abu Qatada’s favour, given the assurances from the Jordanians over his trial and treatment.
“Qatada is a dangerous man, a suspected terrorist, who is accused of serious crime in his home country of Jordan,” she told British legislators.
“The government has been doing everything it can to get rid of Qatada, and we will continue to do so.”
The British government will press for the “most restrictive” bail conditions possible for Abu Qatada, she said.
She intends to appeal the court’s decision.
Jailed without charge
British government lawyers have accused Abu Qatada of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the US over the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Audio recordings of some of Abu Qatada’s sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the September 11 hijackers.
Authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws which at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be jailed without charge.
Though he was released in 2005 when the law was overturned, he was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months to be held in custody pending his deportation to Jordan.