Britain voiced its frustration Thursday at the legal tangle in the European Court of Human Rights preventing London from deporting a radical cleric, as it hosted talks on taming the court’s powers.
Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to continue efforts to remove Abu Qatada to Jordan, despite the process being thrown into doubt by the Islamist’s last-minute and apparently unexpected appeal to the Strasbourg court.
The opposition Labour Party called the situation a “farce”.
It said the government was presiding over “confusion and chaos”, while doubts over Abu Qatada’s future increased the likelihood that he would be released from jail until they were resolved.
In a rowdy session in parliament’s lower House of Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said she still believed he could be deported.
“We’ve always been clear that despite the progress that we have made, the process of deporting Abu Qatada is likely to take many months,” she told the House of Commons.
“It should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that Qatada has chosen to use delaying tactics.
“The government is clear that Abu Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday,” she said.
“The government has written to the European Court to make clear our case that the application should be rejected because it is out of time.”
Cameron said he wished he could take Abu Qatada to Jordan in person.
“The home secretary has made clear the issue over the timing, but the real issue is over the substance — and that is that this man has no right to be in our country,” he told reporters in Scotland.
“He is a danger to our country and we want to remove him from our country. However long it takes and however many difficulties there are, we will get him out.
“I sometimes wish I could put him on a plane and take him to Jordan myself. But government has to act within the law. That is what we’ll do. We will get this done.”
The situation threatened to overshadow the government’s efforts to push through reforms of the European court at a conference of the 47 member nations held Thursday in the southern English coastal resort of Brighton.
Britain has been trying to deport Abu Qatada, who claimed asylum here in 1993, for more than six years, arguing that he is a threat to national security.
But his removal has repeatedly been blocked by the courts amid concerns about his treatment in Jordan, where the cleric was convicted in 1998, in his absence, of involvement in terror attacks.
In the latest such ruling in January, the European court said he should not be deported due to the risk that evidence obtained from torture would be used against him on his return to Jordan.
Rather than appeal, the British government decided to seek assurances from Amman that this would not be the case.
Following months of high-level negotiations, May announced to the Commons on Tuesday that these assurances had been secured and Abu Qatada had subsequently been arrested and would be deported.
She acted in the belief that the deadline for the cleric to appeal against the European ruling had passed on Monday.
But just hours after her statement, Abu Qatada’s legal team lodged its application, arguing the deadline was in fact on Tuesday.
Thursday’s newspaper headlines were scathing, with The Times asking “Does May know what day it is?” and the Daily Mail splashing “What a fiasco!”.
In a statement, the Strasbourg court said it was now considering whether Abu Qatada’s appeal request complied with Article 43 of the Human Rights Convention.
In a letter received at 11:00pm Tuesday in Strasbourg, the cleric asked for his case to be referred to the court’s Grand Chamber, believing the January ruling was “wrong to decide that he would not be at risk of torture if deported to Jordan”.
“The panel will decide on whether the referral request complies with the conditions laid down in Article 43 of the European Convention on Human Rights for the admissibility of a referral request and, if so, whether the case should be referred.”
The cleric’s case is one of several high-profile disputes between London and Strasbourg and Cameron has vowed to use Britain’s current chairmanship of the Council of Europe to streamline the court.