A cleric once described as Osama bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe is fighting deportation to Jordan where he claims evidence obtained by torture will be used against him.
The special immigration appeals commission today begins a seven-day hearing in London to consider the deportation of the 52-year-old Jordanian, Abu Qatada, and whether Amman has provided sufficient assurances that he will receive a fair trial if deported.
The preacher was convicted in Jordan, in his absence, of involvement in two terrorist conspiracies in 1999 and 2000.
Today’s case raises questions about the effectiveness of the British justice system following the long-awaited departure of high-profile preacher Abu Hamza and four other terrorism suspects.
The five men delayed extradition to the US for between eight to 14 years using legal tactics and taxpayer-funded legal aid to thwart the process, raising concerns that justice delayed may well be justice denied.
European judges of the grand chamber ruled on 9 May that Abu Qatada should not be deported until there were further assurances from Jordan that his expected retrial on terrorism offences would not include evidence obtained by torture of others.
“Allowing a criminal court to rely on torture evidence would legitimise the torture of witnesses and suspects pre-trial,” the European court ruled. “Moreover, torture evidence was unreliable, because a person being tortured would say anything to make it stop.”
Jordan has since given further assurances to Home Secretary Theresa May that appear to guarantee any trial will be fair. It is understood that those assurances will be challenged by Abu Qatada’s legal team over the seven-day hearing.
Abu Qatada is Bethlehem-born and is being detained in Long Lartin prison, Worcestershire, for suspected links to al-Qaeda. He has been in the UK since claiming asylum in 1993.
Qatada has sought unsuccessfully to be freed on bail while fighting his deportation. The Islamist cleric – identified by MI5 and a Spanish judge as a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden – argued that his detention in the UK for about seven years was “disproportionate and unlawful”.
His lawyer Edward Fitzgerald has argued: “There comes a point where detention is just too long, and this is the longest period of administrative detention, so far as we know, in modern English history.”
The position of the Home Office is that Abu Qatada’s legal team were “clutching at straws” in their attempt to get him released on bail in the UK to fight deportation. The commission ruled in May that releasing Abu Qatada during the Olympic Games would be “exceptionally problematic” for the police and security services.
“Abu Qatada’s legal team are clearly clutching at straws in their attempts to get this dangerous man released, when jail is where he belongs. We will strongly resist any attempt to overturn the court’s decision to keep him locked up ahead of his removal from the UK,” the Home Office said in a statement at the time.
The radical cleric has been released for three brief periods since he was incarcerated in Belmarsh prison after 9/11 under emergency anti-terror legislation. When he was released earlier this year his bail conditions included a 22-hour curfew.
Robin Tam, acting for the commission, argues that Qatada, would “abscond and go to ground” if he was granted bail. On one of the previous occasions Abu Qatada had been released he had been able, with the aid of contacts, to “stay out of sight” for 10 months.
The home secretary was the target of Commons criticism earlier this year when a government attempt to send Qatada back to Jordan appeared to be derailed by a technical mix-up over dates.