U.K. Seeks Deportation of Freed Islamist Cleric
By Caroline Alexander and James Lumley
June 18 (Bloomberg)
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was “disappointed'' Islamist Cleric Abu Qatada was freed on bail and that the U.K. government will lodge an appeal against a ruling preventing him from being deported.
“I am extremely disappointed that the courts have granted Abu Qatada bail, albeit with very strict conditions,'' Smith said in a statement in London today. “I am appealing to the House of Lords to reverse the decision that it is not safe to deport Qatada and the other Jordanian cases.''
The cleric, a Jordanian once described by a Spanish judge as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's right hand man in Europe, was released from Long Lartin Prison in Worcestershire, central England, last night. He was driven out of the prison, hidden under a blanket, according to the BBC.
In April, the Court of Appeal overturned a February 2007 ruling by the U.K.'s Special Immigrations Appeals Commission that Abu Qatada should return to Jordan, deciding there was no guarantee he wouldn't be tortured. A bail hearing was then set.
Abu Qatada had been in custody pending deportation since August 2005, a month after suicide bombers killed 52 people in London. He was first detained in 2002 under house arrest powers that were declared unlawful, and released in March 2005.
Human rights organizations said the case highlights the difficulty in charging suspected terrorists under U.K. law.
“If the guy is so dangerous why don't we charge him?'' said Roger Smith, a lawyer and director for campaign group Liberty, in a telephone interview. “Maybe we haven't charged him because the evidence against him isn't all that great, or maybe it is because we have got the evidence through a wire-tap, which can't be used in our courts.''
Smith suggested changing the laws on wire-taps and charging the cleric with another offense.
“The government's priority is to protect public safety and national security, and we will take all steps necessary to do so,'' Smith said in the statement, which was e-mailed by her office today.
The U.K. government accuses Abu Qatada of using his British base for recruiting supporters for al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups. He's been convicted twice in absentia in Jordan for involvement in terrorist plots, including attacks on two hotels in Amman in 1998.
While Britain and Jordan have no official extradition treaty, “a memorandum of understanding'' exists between the two and Jordan wants Abu Qatada returned. He is also wanted in the U.S., Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Italy.
Justice John Mitting of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission outlined the conditions of Abu Qatada's release in an eight-page document.
According to the bail order, the cleric must wear an electronic tag and stay in his home for 22 hours a day and can only leave it in hourly excursions beginning at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. He is forbidden to attend mosques or meetings of any kind, or use mobile phones and the Internet.
Police may enter and search Abu Qatada's house, and guests other than family are barred from visiting without the home secretary's permission. The document also lists a number of people that the father of five must not associate with or communicate with. Top of that list is Osama Bin Laden.
Should Abu Qatada break his bail conditions, the alleged breach will be investigated and he faces imprisonment.
Dominic Grieve, home affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, described Abu Qatada's presence in Britain as “offensive,'' and said he should be deported or prosecuted. Grieve also called for the government to allow the use of intercepted evidence, “so they have every weapon possible to prosecute these individuals.''
Abu Qatada was born in 1960 in Bethlehem, which was then administered by Jordan and has been occupied by Israel since 1967. He came to the U.K. in 1993 on a forged passport and was granted asylum the following year. He became one of the U.K.'s most wanted men in December 2001 for suspected links to al- Qaeda, a charge he denies.
In December 2005, Abu Qatada made a video appeal to the abductors of Norman Kember, the British peace activist held in Iraq. Once freed, Kember contributed to the cleric's bail fund, saying that while he didn't know whether Abu Qatada was dangerous, evidence of his guilt needed to be provided.
To contact the reporter on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at email@example.com
Last Updated: June 18, 2008 09:53 EDT