AMMAN, Jordan – A Jordanian military court on Wednesday acquitted radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada on terrorism charges for his role in plotting attacks against Americans and Israelis.
The ruling, handed down by civilian judges presiding over the hearings, capped a lengthy legal odyssey for the cleric known for his fiery pro-Al Qaeda speeches but who in recent months emerged as a harsh critic of the Islamic State militant group.
The court ruled there was insufficient evidence against Abu Qatada and his defense lawyer, Husein Mubaidin, said he expects his client to be released within hours.
Abu Qatada, described as a onetime lieutenant to Usama bin Laden, was charged with involvement in plans to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan in 2000 -- the so-called "millennium plot."
Separately, the 53-year-old preacher was acquitted in June in another case, a foiled 1999 plan to attack an American school in Amman. He had pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges in the proceedings against him.
As the ruling was announced in the Amman courtroom, Abu Qatada's relatives erupted into cheers while women wept with joy and embraced each other.
The cleric, who was inside a defendants' cage for the verdict, guarded by heavily armed riot police, was promptly taken out of the courtroom and made no remarks to media.
From his detention in Jordan, Abu Qatada recently sharply criticized Islamic State militants who have killed thousands of people, beheaded Westerners -- including two American journalists -- and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq in a blitz this summer.
At a court appearance earlier this month, Abu Qatada said he is certain the Islamic State group will be vanquished, adding that "they have the ability to kill and destroy, not to build."
The West Bank-born Abu Qatada fled a Jordanian crackdown on militants, arriving in Britain on a forged passport in 1993. He was granted asylum a year later, but eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities.
He had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison on both Jordanian charges. But on his extradition to Jordan last July, those sentences were suspended and he was ordered to stand a new trial.
Abu Qatada had questioned the impartiality of Jordan's military court, an issue that delayed his deportation from Britain for years. But last June, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture, paving the way for his extradition.
Abu Qatada's real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman.