The deportation from Britain to Jordan of radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada poses a human rights test for Amman as it faces the challenge of ensuring he gets a fair trial, experts say.
The terror suspect was deported on Sunday after the two governments formally approved a treaty guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture would not be used against the 53-year-old cleric in any trial.
Although torture and ill-treatment in detention are illegal in Jordan, complaints about such practices have marred its human rights record.
But it has proved difficult and sometimes impossible to hold alleged torturers accountable.
“The Abu Qatada case has provoked a great deal of scrutiny and debate regarding Jordan’s record on torture,” Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
“The assurances and guarantees Jordan has provided in this individual case are not a substitute for putting a complete stop to all instances of torture or ill-treatment in the kingdom.”
Abu Qatada pleaded not guilty to terror charges pressed by Jordanian military prosecutors just hours after his deportation from Britain, his lawyer Taysir Diab said.
In 1999, Abu Qatada was condemned to death in Jordan for conspiracy to launch terror attacks, including on the American school in Amman, but the sentence was immediately reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
And in 2000, he was sentenced to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on tourists during millennium celebrations in Jordan.
“Jordan has made some progress over the last few years in addressing the torture problem, but complaints continue to emerge,” Coogle said.
“No official in Jordan has ever been successfully prosecuted for torture, and until Jordan ends the atmosphere of impunity for torture and ill-treatment we can never say that there is zero risk.”
Jordan’s Adaleh Centre for Human Rights Studies will monitor the authorities’ treatment of Abu Qatada, who was once described by a Spanish judge as the right-hand man in Europe of Osama bin Laden.
Abu Qatada denies ever having met the now slain Al-Qaeda leader.
“The case of Abu Qatada will test Jordan on its human rights records and the government will seek to show utmost transparency to improve the country’s image,” Hussein Omari, a lawyer at Adaleh, told AFP.
“I do not think Abu Qatada will face torture or mistreatment. Jordan has provided guarantees and the case will be closely monitored by the media as well as Britain.”
But reporters were not allowed into the courtroom to hear the charges being read, despite a government pledge of transparency in handling Abu Qatada’s retrial on charges that have already earned him a life sentence passed in absentia.
Omari said a 25-member team from Adaleh, including doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers, will follow up on the case, examine Abu Qatada’s testimony and attend his trial.
“The team will issue a neutral report on his deportation, trial and verdict. Even if he is declared innocent, we will keep following up on his situation.”
Born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in the now Israeli-occupied West Bank, the father of five has Jordanian nationality because the town was part of Jordan at the time of his birth.
“I do not think that Abu Qatada will face a fair trial in Jordan,” said Musa Abdallat, a Salafist lawyer who represents Islamist groups in Jordan.
“Jordan’s human rights record is well known. Torture, mistreatment and similar practices still exist. The country does not respect human rights, particularly when it comes to Islamists.”
MP Khalil Attieh, the deputy lower house speaker, disagreed.
“Parliament will not accept unfair trial of any Jordanian,” he told AFP.
“The country has provided enough guarantees to ensure a fair trial and that he will not face any kind of mistreatment or torture.”
For Coogle, the case gives Jordan the chance to show that it can conduct a fair hearing for a terrorism suspect.
“State security court officials should uphold Jordan’s pledge not to introduce any evidence obtained through torture or ill-treatment, and they should open the trial and allow independent monitoring organisations and the media to attend and ensure that the proceedings comply with fair trial standards,” he said.
“Jordan will not be able to put a complete stop to instances of torture and ill-treatment until it holds those who commit these acts accountable.”