Britain’s decade-long battle to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada had a surprise boost Friday after he vowed to return to Jordan voluntarily if its parliament ratifies a treaty barring the use of evidence obtained by torture.
Abu Qatada’s lawyer told a bail hearing at an immigration tribunal in London that the Islamist terror suspect was ready to return to Amman as soon as Jordanian lawmakers approve the fair trial pact with Britain.
British Interior Minister Theresa May had announced the new treaty with Jordan on April 24 in the government’s latest bid to deport the preacher, once dubbed Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe.
“If and when the Jordanian parliament ratifies the treaty, Mr Othman will voluntarily return to Jordan,” his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), referring to the cleric by his real name, Omar Mohammed Othman.
Lawyers for the British government told the commission that the treaty would be laid before the Jordanian parliament in the next few weeks, but judges asked for more evidence to prove that the treaty was coming into force.
The announcement by Abu Qatada’s lawyer came unexpectedly during a hearing to consider the preacher’s appeal to be released from his latest stint in prison.
He was freed on bail in November but locked up again in March for allegedly breaching bail conditions forbidding him from having mobile phones in his house.
A total of 17 mobile phones, three USB sticks, one SD card, five digital media devices and 55 recordable CDs or DVDs were found in what represented a “significant” breach, judge Stephen Irwin said at Friday’s hearing.
The tribunal adjourned the bail hearing until May 20.
There was no immediate comment from Jordanian authorities.
The fiery preacher has been resident in Britain since he claimed asylum in 1993.
He was convicted in Jordan of terrorism charges in absentia, and he is likely to face a retrial if he is returned.
A Spanish judge once branded him bin Laden’s deputy in Europe even though Abu Qatada denies ever meeting the late Al-Qaeda leader.
The European Court of Human Rights originally blocked his deportation from Britain due to fears that evidence obtained through torture would be used against him in the new trial.
But it then backtracked in May 2012 and said Britain could expel him.
SIAC however ruled again in November that he could not be sent back because of the concerns about torture and released him on bail.
The Court of Appeal in London then upheld that decision last month.
May unveiled the treaty with Jordan just days after the appeal court ruling.
The interior minister told parliament at the time that the agreement contained “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”.
The British government has warned it could pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights if it cannot deport Abu Qatada by other means.
Prime Minister David Cameron said last month that the case made his “blood boil”.
Cameron’s spokesman said on Friday in response to the latest development that the case was “still ongoing” and that the government was “absolutely determined to put Abu Qatada on a plane back to Jordan”.