Britain has signed a new legal agreement with Jordan in its latest bid to deport Islamist terror suspect Abu Qatada after a 12-year legal battle, Home Secretary Theresa May said Wednesday.
The minister told parliament that the treaty gave guarantees that the “dangerous” radical preacher, whose real name is Omar Mohammed Othman, would face a fair trial if deported and that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in the case.
But May indicated that if the Jordan deal failed to sway Britain’s courts then the government would consider temporarily withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights to expel Qatada.
The announcement came one day after the Court of Appeal in London refused her permission to challenge its ruling that the radical preacher cannot be sent back due to rights concerns.
“I can tell the house that I have signed a comprehensive mutual legal assistance agreement with Jordan,” May said in a statement to the House of Commons.
“I believe that the treaty we have agreed with Jordan, once ratified by both parliaments, will finally make possible the deportation of Abu Qatada.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that the issue “made his blood boil”, with the case having bounced back and forth between London and Europe since 2001.
May, who has been tipped as a possible future leader of Cameron’s Conservative party, has repeatedly sought promises from Jordan about the treatment of Abu Qatada as she seeks to end an embarrasing failure for the coalition government.
There was no immediate reaction from Amman.
A Spanish judge once branded Abu Qatada the right-hand man in Europe of Osama bin Laden, although Abu Qatada denies ever meeting the late Al-Qaeda leader.
The 52-year-old cleric has been resident in Britain since claiming asylum in 1993.
The preacher was convicted in Jordan of terrorism charges in his absence, and is likely to face a retrial if he is returned.
The European Court of Human Rights last year blocked his deportation over fears that evidence obtained through torture would be used against him in the new trial, but then backtracked in May and said Britain could expel him.
However Britain’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission in November ruled again that he could not be sent back because of the concerns about torture.
The Court of Appeal upheld that decision last month.
May reiterated that the British government would now apply directly to the Supreme Court to hear their appeal, despite the Court of Appeal’s refusal to deal with the case.
May has repeatedly sought promises from Jordan about the treatment of Abu Qatada.
The new agreement includes a “fair trial guarantees” that will “provide the courts with the assurance that Qatada will not face evidence that might have been obtained by torture in a retrial in Jordan,” she said.
But May admitted that even when the new treaty is ratified it will not mean that Abu Qatada will be “on a plane to Jordan within days” as he will still be able to appeal against any new decisions.
May also said the government would consider pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“We should have all options — including leaving the convention altogether — on the table. The prime minister is looking at all the options. That is the only sensible thing to do,” she said.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights campaigning group, said the threat to pull out of the convention was “extraordinary”.
“It’s extraordinary that the home secretary is contemplating leaving a major human rights treaty that Britain helped create just to make it easy to deport an undesirable person,” said Benjamin Ward, HRW’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director.
Britain initially detained Abu Qatada in 2002 under anti-terror laws imposed in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, and he has been in and out of jail ever since.
Videos of his sermons were found in the Hamburg flat used by some of the 9/11 hijackers.
The cleric was released under house arrest in November but was sent back to jail on March 9 accused of breaching his bail conditions.