Abu Qatada Back In Jail As Deportation Enters Final Stages

Posted: 17/04/2012 22:21 Updated: 17/04/2012 22:21

Abu Qatada
Abu Qatada has been sent back to prison

Terror suspect Abu Qatada is back behind bars as the 10-year battle to put him on a plane to Jordan entered its final stages.

Home Secretary Theresa May has secured assurances from Jordan that it would "bend over backwards" to ensure Qatada receives a fair trial over terror charges, a senior immigration judge said on Tuesday.

Just hours earlier, the radical cleric, who has been described by a judge as Osama bin Laden's right hand man in Europe, was arrested at his London home by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers, the Press Association reported.

PICTURES: Scroll down for images of Abu Qatada being arrested

It marked the start of the government's latest bid to deport Qatada, who was returned to jail after a rapidly convened court hearing found deportation was imminent and the chance of Qatada trying to abscond had increased.

The judge, Mr Justice Mitting, added: "If the parties act with great rapidity it is possible that this very long-running saga can be brought to a rapid conclusion within a matter of at most a very few weeks."

But Qatada's legal team are likely to challenge all moves to deport him and Mrs May warned MPs that it may still be "many months" before Qatada can be lawfully kicked out.

Any appeal would have to be based on "narrow grounds" though, she said, and the government was confident of its "eventual success".

Qatada was released from Long Lartin high-security jail in Evesham, Worcestershire, in February under some of the toughest bail conditions seen since the September 11 attacks.

It came after Europe's human rights judges in Strasbourg ruled that he could not be deported to Jordan without assurances that evidence gained through torture would not be used against him.

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But with the assurances now given by Jordan, the 51-year-old could be put on a plane lawfully, MPs were told.

If he challenges the order and it is promptly dismissed, a judicial review of the decision could be held as early as 25 April, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) hearing heard.

Speaking in the Commons, Mrs May said: "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."

The home secretary pointed to a change in the Jordanian constitution last autumn "that includes a specific ban on the use of torture evidence".

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Other assurances include that Jordan's state security court is not a quasi-military court as the judges in Strasbourg suggested, she said, but a key part of the Jordanian justice system which hears a wide range of cases.

Qatada's case "will be heard in public with civilian judges" and "his conviction in absentia will be quashed immediately" upon his return to Jordan, she added.

Mrs May also said Qatada would be held in a "normal civilian detention centre" with access to independent defence lawyers.

His co-accused will still be able to give evidence in his trial, but "what they say in court will have no effect upon the pardons they have been granted", Mrs May said.

"We can therefore have confidence that they would give truthful testimony."

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

"But today Qatada has been arrested and the deportation is under way."

She was cheered as she told MPs Qatada had been arrested.

Mrs May also said she would be "examining the processes and procedures used in France, Italy and elsewhere to see if our own legislation might be changed to enable us to deport dangerous foreign nationals faster" in future.

The government will also consider reforms to the Strasbourg-based court at a conference in Brighton later this week, change immigration rules to prevent the abuse of a right to a family life, "and, of course, we need a British Bill of Rights", Mrs May said.

She added that simply ignoring the court's ruling and putting Qatada on a plane was not an option as it would have involved ministers, government officials, the police, law enforcement officers and airline companies all breaking the law.

The government would also have risked being ordered to bring Qatada back to Britain and pay out compensation, Mrs May said.

But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper demanded to know whether Qatada would still be in Britain when the Olympics - a high-profile terrorist target - begin in July.

Meanwhile, Qatada, wearing a black coat, sat in the dock at the Siac hearing in central London as his legal team said they would fight any moves to deport him.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing Qatada, said the arguments for deportation were based on "a series of unsubstantiated claims".

Qatada, who is said to have "wide and high-level support" among extremists, was convicted in his absence in Jordan of involvement with terror attacks in 1998 and now faces a retrial in his home country.

He also featured in hate sermons found on videos in the flat of one of the September 11 bombers.

Since 2001, when fears of the domestic terror threat rose in the aftermath of the attacks, he has challenged, and ultimately thwarted, every attempt by the government to detain and deport him.

"The Home Secretary must now act to rectify a situation where an individual described as one of the most dangerous people in Britain and the right-hand man of bin Laden is allowed to stay in the UK for so many years," he said.

Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said Mrs May must now ensure a fast-tack system is brought in for serious cases.

"There are some 15 cases awaiting resolution in the European Courts. These cases must not be left to crawl through the court system.

"Only through the introduction of this measure can we ensure we do not have another Qatada down the line."

PICTURES: Qatada being arrested in North London on Tuesday:

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Filed by David Hobbs  |