British authorities have re-arrested radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada and begun a fresh bid to deport him, saying they had resolved concerns about his treatment in Jordan.
Home Secretary Theresa May told parliament she had received assurances from Amman that the 51-year-old would receive a fair trial if he was returned to face charges of involvement in terror attacks in his home country.
Abu Qatada was found guilty in his absence in 1998, but Jordan has promised to quash the conviction and give him a new hearing before civilian judges, with independent defence lawyers and the right to question witnesses, she said.
“Qatada does not belong in Britain, he belongs in Jordan, where he deserves to face justice,” May told the House of Commons Tuesday.
She admitted that his deportation could still take “many months”.
At an immigration hearing a few hours later, a judge denied Abu Qatada bail, saying there was a real possibility that he would abscond.
Britain has been trying since 2005 to deport the cleric, who was labelled a senior aide to late Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden by a Spanish judge.
But its efforts have been repeatedly blocked by the courts, most recently in January when the European Court of Human Rights ruled there was a risk that Jordanian prosecutors would use evidence obtained through torture.
Abu Qatada, who has been detained in Britain for most of the past decade on terrorism-related allegations, successfully appealed for bail following the ruling and was released under strict conditions on February 13.
Britain subsequently sought assurances from Jordan that would allay the European court’s concerns, with Prime Minister David Cameron personally calling King Abdullah II and May visiting Jordan last month.
Officials believe the high-level diplomacy has now cleared the way to deport the cleric, and he was re-arrested by immigration officials on Tuesday morning.
“British courts have found that Abu Qatada is a dangerous man, he is a risk to our national security and he should be deported to Jordan,” May said, accusing him of a “longstanding association with Al-Qaeda”.
“We have now obtained from the Jordanian government the material we need to comply with the ruling of the European court,” she told lawmakers.
“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.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, insisted Britain must now implement a fast-track deportation system for serious cases.
“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.
Al-Qaeda threatened earlier this month to attack Britain if it decides to extradite Abu Qatada.
Videos of the cleric’s sermons were found in the Hamburg flat used by some of the hijackers involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks, while he has also defended killing Jews, converts to Islam, and attacks on Americans.
Jordanian information minister and government spokesman Rakan Majali told the state-run Petra news agency: “The Jordanian constitution guarantees a fair trial to convicts, including Abu Qatada.”
But a top Jordanian Salafist leader, Abed Shehadeh, known as Abu Mohammad Tahawi, said: “Abu Qatada has been charged with false crimes that he had nothing to do with. He will be detained and tortured in Jordan.”
Britain had until midnight Tuesday to appeal against the European court ruling, and May said it would not be doing so, arguing that the assurances offered by Amman offered the “quickest route” to removing Abu Qatada.
She acknowledged that the father of five could still appeal to an immigration tribunal and delay his deportation further, but said: “We can have confidence in our eventual success.”
The cleric, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin who is also known as Omar Mohammed Othman, arrived in Britain in 1993 claiming asylum and has been the thorn in the side of successive British governments.