UK: Hurdles cleared in bid to deport cleric

AP News

4/17/2012 2:40:06 PM - AP News

A radical Islamist cleric fighting deportation from Britain to Jordan was again behind bars Tuesday, and the U.K. said it hoped to finally expel the preacher after a decade of legal wrangling.

Home Secretary Theresa May said new assurances from Jordan to offer a fair trial to Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-Jordanian preacher described in Spanish and British courts as a leading al-Qaida figure in Europe, should allow the saga to end.

Authorities in Britain have been trying to expel the preacher since 2001, but after a lengthy legal battle the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January that Abu Qatada could not be deported to Jordan because of a risk that evidence obtained through torture would be used against him there.

Abu Qatada has previously been convicted in absentia in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and he will face a retrial if deported from Britain.

The preacher was arrested on Tuesday by U.K. Border Agency officers and denied bail at a hearing at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission _ a court that handles deportation and national security cases. He had been freed in February following the European court's ruling, albeit on strict bail conditions, including a curfew.

Following two visits by British ministers to Jordan and telephone talks between Prime Minister David Cameron and Jordan's King Abdullah II, Britain had secured a series of pledges to address the European court's concerns, May said.

Jordan agreed that Abu Qatada would have his previous conviction quashed pending a new trial, will have his case heard in public before civilian judges, and will be granted access to regular defense lawyers.

May said that Jordan had vowed that no information gleaned through torture would be used in the cleric's case and had changed its constitution to bar the use of such evidence.

In its January ruling, the European court said "not only is torture widespread in Jordan, so too is the use of torture evidence by its courts."

May _ who visited Jordan last month _ said Britain believes the new assurances will lead both British and European courts to dismiss any fresh appeal by the cleric against his deportation.

"I believe the assurances and the information we have gathered will mean that we can soon put Qatada on a plane and get him out of our country for good," May told lawmakers to cheers in the House of Commons.

May said that Britain had first attempted to deport Abu Qatada, also known as Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, in December 2001, but had repeatedly been frustrated by the sluggish progress of court appeals.

The cleric was detained in Britain 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, Abu Qatada was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months to be held in custody pending his deportation to Jordan.

The cleric's lawyer, Ed Fitzgerald, told the court that Britain's arguments for deportation were based on "a series of unsubstantiated claims."

If Fitzgerald appeals the new deportation attempt, as expected, efforts to finalize Abu Qatada's deportation are likely to take several months.

"Deportation may still take time. The proper process must be followed and the rule of law must take precedence," May acknowledged.

In Jordan, Justice Minister Ibrahim al-Jazi insisted that no evidence obtained through torture could be used in any trial there, despite the European court's concerns.

"Jordan's constitution ... clearly states that no confession extracted under torture may be heard in a court of law," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "This was a recent amendment made last September and enforced in October. This is in line with international standards of human rights, (the) U.N. convention against torture, as well as our national legislation."

Militants have threatened reprisals to Britain, if the cleric is sent to Jordan.

In a statement posted to a militant web forum, al-Qaida warned Britain that his expulsion would open "an unnecessary door to evil that will harm (Britain) and its subjects."

SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online activity from terrorist groups, said that Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab also issued a warning on militant forums Monday.

"The British public is also forewarned that it will be the British government, as a result of its imprudence, that shall be liable for any disaster that befalls them, or their national interests," the statement said, according to SITE.

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Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.