Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada left a British prison on Saturday ahead of his deportation to Jordan to face terror charges, as a nearly decade-long legal battle by successive governments to expel him neared its end.
Britain is deporting the 53-year-old Palestinian-born preacher after London and Amman last month formally approved a treaty guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture would not be used against him in any trial.
The burly, bearded mullah was once dubbed Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe by a Spanish judge, while British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will be “one of the happiest people in Britain” when he leaves.
A police convoy consisting of a blue police armoured van believed to be carrying Abu Qatada, two saloon cars and a Range Rover swept out of Belmarsh prison in southeast London at high speed just before midnight, an AFP photographer said.
He is expected to fly out of RAF Northolt airbase in west London in the early hours of Sunday on a chartered jet, British media reported. Jordanian officials have told AFP they expect him to arrive in Amman on Sunday morning.
There was no immediate comment from the Home Office, or interior ministry.
Abu Qatada’s wife and five children are expected to remain in Britain, where he first came in 1993 seeking asylum.
The radical cleric has been in and out of British prisons since 2002 and London has been trying to deport him since 2005, but was blocked by courts in Britain and in Europe.
His lawyers unexpectedly said in May that he would return there once the fair trial treaty was ratified by the Jordanian parliament.
Born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in the now Israeli-occupied West Bank, Abu Qatada is a Jordanian national because the town was part of Jordan when he was born.
He was condemned to death in 1999 for conspiracy to carry out terror attacks including on the American school in Amman but the sentence was immediately reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
In 2000, he was sentenced to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on tourists during the millennium celebrations in Jordan.
Under Jordanian law, Abu Qatada faces retrial for the offences on his return, because the original convictions were made in absentia.
Videotapes of his sermons were allegedly found in the Hamburg flat of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta while top Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon once branded Abu Qatada Osama bin Laden’s deputy in Europe, although Abu Qatada denies ever having met the slain Al-Qaeda leader.
Jordanian Salafist leader Mohammad Shalabi, who is better known as Abu Sayyaf, told AFP this week that his followers were hopeful Abu Qatada would be allowed to go home instead of returning to jail.
“God willing, he will be declared innocent after a fair and quick trial,” Shalabi said.
Detained under anti-terror legislation in Britain in 2002 and held in custody or under tight bail conditions ever since, on the basis of intelligence assessments that he was a spiritual mentor for recruits to Al-Qaeda, Abu Qatada has never been prosecuted for any crime in Britain.
Britain began formal proceedings to deport him in 2005 in a legal fight that the government says has cost more than Â£1.7 million ($2.7 million, two million euros).
His lawyers took his case to European human rights judges who ruled earlier attempts to extradite him illegal on the grounds that evidence might be used against him that had been obtained by torture.
But while the case was bouncing in and out of the courts, British Home Secretary Theresa May was negotiating the so-called “Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters” with Jordan, which she announced in April.
The treaty was then ratified by the British and Jordanian parliaments.
It does not specifically refer to Abu Qatada’s case but May said it should allay any remaining fears about torture-tainted evidence.