AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A radical al-Qaida-linked preacher deported from Britain pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges at the start of his trial Tuesday in one of two terror cases against him before a Jordanian military court.
Abu Qatada, 53, is charged with plotting terror attacks against Israelis, Americans and other Westerners in Jordan in two foiled attempts in 1999 and 2000. In both cases, Abu Qatada, who was abroad at the time, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison.
But on his deportation to his homeland in July, those sentences were suspended and he had to be re-tried under Jordanian law.
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
Britain accused him 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.
On his arrival in Amman on July 7, Jordanian prosecutors charged him with conspiring to carry out terror attacks in Jordan twice — once in 1999 for a foiled plot against the American school in the Jordanian capital, and another time in 2000 for allegedly targeting Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during Jordan's Millennium celebrations.
On Tuesday, the tribunal — consisting of two civilian judges and a military one — said the cases will be heard separately, and proceeded with the hearing in the case involving Israeli and American tourists.
But Abu Qatada objected to the presence of the military judge — Col. Mohammad Afif — and said it violated an agreement with Britain that paved way for his extradition and meant to guarantee him a fair trial in his homeland.
Sporting his tradition salt-and-pepper beard and wearing a dark brown prison uniform, Abu Qatada appeared defiant as he stood in the dock, his back to the bench. Later, he asked for a microphone and addressed the tribunal.
"I will not answer questions by this court because I do not recognize its jurisdiction," he said. His relatives, including his son Qatada, and reporters crowded the courtroom. Cameramen and photographers were not allowed inside.
"This tribunal includes a military judge and this is a violation of the deal with Britain that encouraged me to return home for re-trial," he added somberly.
Presiding judge Ahmad Qatarneh, a civilian, halted the hearing for 30 minutes. The court had planned to hear the other case, but instead adjourned the proceedings until Dec. 24.
In Britain earlier this year, Abu Qatada questioned the impartiality of Jordan's military court, an issue that delayed his deportation from Britain for years. But after Jordan and Britain ratified their treaty on torture aimed at easing those worries in June, the radical preacher voluntarily accepted to return to Jordan for a re-trial.
No official British observers attended Tuesday's proceedings in Amman but a court official said a Jordanian-British friend of Abu Qatada and a Jordanian representative of a committee that assisted in Jordan's negotiations with Britain on the torture deal were in the courtroom. The court official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Abu Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum in the U.K. a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities, which allegedly included raising funds to finance terror plots in Jordan.
British authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him a year later 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 close surveillance and detained in various ways.
Britain's original efforts to deport him were blocked by courts over concerns that evidence obtained under torture could be used against him. After years of successfully fighting the numerous attempts to expel him from the U.K., Abu Qatada indicated last summer he would voluntarily return to Jordan after the treaty on torture was ratified.
That treaty explicitly bans the use of evidence "where there are serious and credible allegations that a statement from a person has been obtained by torture or ill-treatment."