Terror suspect Abu Qatada, who has been dubbed Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, will be freed on bail after British judges on Monday upheld his appeal against extradition to Jordan.
The decision is a major blow for the British government after it fought for years to deport the radical Islamist preacher to Jordan. It vowed to challenge the decision.
Judges ruled that evidence obtained through torture could be used against Abu Qatada, a 51-year-old Jordanian of Palestinian origin, if he was sent back to face a retrial.
Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia in Jordan in 1998 for involvement in terror attacks.
The judges then announced that Abu Qatada, who has spent most of the last seven years in British jails fighting deportation, should be freed on bail on Tuesday.
Interior minister Theresa May had ordered Abu Qatada’s extradition after she was given assurances by Jordan that no evidence gained through the torture of two other men would be used against him in a retrial.
But the Special Immigration Appeals Commission — a semi-secret panel of British judges that deals with decisions on national security — said that could not be guaranteed.
“We are satisfied that the Secretary of State should have exercised her discretion differently and should not have declined to revoke the deportation order,” the commission said in its ruling.
“Accordingly, this appeal is allowed.”
The judges later agreed to free Abu Qatada on bail from the high-security Long Lartin jail in central England on condition that he observe a curfew for 16 hours a day and wear an electronic tag.
Arguing for bail, the cleric’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the court: “Enough is enough, it has gone on for many, many years now.
“There is no prospect of deportation taking place within a reasonable time, in fact there is no prospect at present of deportation at all.”
Government lawyer Robin Tam said Abu Qatada posed an “enormous” risk to national security and a risk of absconding and should be denied bail.
The Home Office said it “strongly disagrees” with the decision to grant Abu Qatada his appeal.
“We have obtained assurances not just in relation to the treatment of Qatada himself, but about the quality of the legal processes that would be followed throughout his trial,” a spokesman said.
“We will therefore seek leave to appeal today’s decision.”
It had no immediate reaction to the granting of bail.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled earlier this year that Abu Qatada could not be deported while there was a “real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him”.
May then travelled to Jordan to secure guarantees from Amman that he would receive a fair trial and the ECHR subsequently gave the go-ahead for him to be extradited.
But the immigration tribunal’s ruling on Monday said statements from Abu Qatada’s former co-defendants Al-Hamasher and Abu Hawsher, which were alleged to have been obtained by torture, created a risk that his trial would be unfair.
Al-Qaeda has threatened to attack Britain if it extradites Abu Qatada.
The cleric, a father of five 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.
Videos of his 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 and carrying out attacks on Americans.
Britain first ordered his deportation in 2005, and his appeal against that order was rejected in 2009. May then signed a fresh deportation order and Qatada appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
He was briefly freed on bail earlier this year but then rearrested.
In October Britain extradited another radical Islamist preacher, Abu Hamza, and four other terror suspects to the United States at the end of a long legal battle.