LONDON – A radical Islamist cleric described by prosecutors as a key al-Qaida operative in Europe cannot be deported from Britain to Jordan to face terrorism charges, judges ruled Monday in the latest twist in a protracted legal saga.
Britain's government has been attempting since 2001 to expel radical preacher Abu Qatada, who has previously been convicted in his absence in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots.
Though the country's Home Office said it intended to appeal the decision, Judge John Mitting granted the cleric bail and said he would be freed from prison on Tuesday — despite a claim from a government lawyer that he poses a major security theat.
Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-born Jordanian cleric whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, was convicted in Jordan over terror plots in 1999 and 2000, and he will face a retrial if deported there from Britain.
Britain's government has insisted it has won assurances from Jordan over how Abu Qatada's case would be handled — including from Jordan's King Abdullah II, who met with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week. But judges said there is a real risk that evidence obtained through torture would be used against the cleric.
In Monday's ruling, Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which handles major terrorism and deportation cases, said it is 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."
British Home Secretary Theresa May struck back, saying her government "strongly disagrees" with the ruling and believes Mitting "applied the wrong legal test" in ruling in Abu Qatada's favor, 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 lawmakers. "The government has been doing everything it can to get rid of Abu Qatada, and we will continue to do so."
The British government will press for the "most restrictive" bail conditions possible for Abu Qatada, she added.
Abu Qatada remains "an enormous risk to national security," government lawyer Robin Tam told Monday's hearing.
Prosecutors in British and Spanish courts have previously described Abu Qatada as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
British government lawyers have previously accused Abu Qatada of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric's sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 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 unpopular law was overturned, the cleric was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months to be held in custody pending his deportation to Jordan.
Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.