Some of the evidence against terror suspect Abu Qatada is “extremely thin”, a senior British judge said Wednesday at the start of the radical cleric’s appeal against extradition to Jordan.
Judge John Mitting made the comment at the start of a review of whether the 51-year-old would get a fair trial if he were deported to Jordan.
Abu Qatada, a Jordanian national, was convicted in his absence in Jordan in 1998 for involvement in terror attacks.
Britain is moving to send him to Jordan after interior minister Theresa May was given assurances by the Jordanian authorities that no evidence gained through torture would be used against him in a retrial on his return.
But discussing the case as the hearing began, Mitting, president of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, said: “The evidence seems extremely thin.”
Abu Qatada, who was once described by a judge as Al-Qaeda terror chief Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, has spent most of the last seven years in jail and is being held in a high-security prison while he fights deportation.
The hearing is expected to last seven days.
It comes after another radical Islamist preacher, Abu Hamza, and four other terror suspects were extradited from Britain to the United States on Saturday at the end of a long legal battle to avoid deportation.
Lawyer Robin Tam, acting for Home Secretary May, said Abu Qatada was “scraping the barrel” with an appeal that “bears all the hallmarks of a last-ditch argument”.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled that Abu Qatada could not be deported while there was a “real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him”.
Tam said statements from Abu Qatada’s former co-defendants — Al-Hamasher and Abu Hawsher — which were alleged to have been obtained by torture could no longer be used by the Jordanian courts.
“The two men will be called to give fresh evidence, and if they do so, will be able to give their evidence freely and without fear of reprisal,” he said.
“There is no real risk that the former co-defendants’ statements will be relied upon at the appellant’s retrial, and that consequently his removal to Jordan would not constitute a flagrant denial of justice.”
He also stressed that a ban on the use of evidence obtained by torture has recently been enshrined in the Jordanian constitution.
Abu Qatada’s lawyer Danny Friedman said even if his client loses his appeal, he could eventually appeal again to the ECHR.
The radical cleric has thwarted every attempt to deport him.
Abu Qatada is in custody and did not attend the hearing.