Abu Qatada: Islamic cleric is released from jail
By Duncan Gardham and Gordon Rayner
Last Updated: 11:58PM BST 17/06/2008
Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic cleric described as Osama bin Laden’s “right-hand man in Europe”, has been released from jail after a judge ruled that there were no grounds to keep him in prison.
The decision to allow him to return to his home in London – where he will receive around £1,000 per month in state benefits
– made a mockery of the government’s promise to crack down on terror suspects, and embarrassed the Home Office, which had pledged to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges.
The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, said she was “extremely disappointed” at the court’s decision to bail Qatada, while the Conservatives branded the decision “offensive”.
Mr Justice Mitting signed an order to release Qatada on bail, with strict conditions, following an earlier Court of Appeal decision to refuse his deportation on the grounds that it would breach human rights law.
The judge was sitting at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in London, the same court which had previously described Qatada as “a truly dangerous individual” who was “heavily involved, indeed at the centre of terrorist activities associated with al-Qa’eda”.
But because Qatada has never been convicted of a criminal offence in the UK, and because he cannot be deported, the judge ruled that he had to be freed pending a last-ditch attempt by the Home Office to have the deportation ruling overturned in the House of Lords.
After being freed from HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire he is scheduled to be driven to Acton in West London where he must spend at least 22 hours a day at home, wearing an electronic tag.
Police are expected to maintain a constant presence outside Qatada’s home to protect him from vigilante attacks, at an annual cost of tens of thousands of pounds.
The taxpayer will also fund at least £12,000 per year in benefits for Qatada, his wife and five children, even though Qatada was once found to have £170,000 in cash in his possession when he was stopped by police.
Qatada, 47, has been accused of helping to inspire the September 11 attacks after videos of his sermons were found in the flat used by three of the hijackers, including their leader Mohammed Atta.
He is wanted in his native Jordan for allegedly plotting a series of bomb attacks in Amman in 1998 and for providing finance and advice to terrorists planning a series of explosions there on Millennium night.
Although he has been convicted in his absence, he had been promised a retrial, and in 2005 the government secured an agreement with Jordan that returned terror suspects would not be tortured and would be given a fair trial. However, the much-trumpeted Memorandum of Understanding fell at the first hurdle after the Appeal Court judges said evidence against him might have been obtained through torture.
Even if the government is successful in its appeal to the Law Lords, Qatada could take his case to the European Court on the grounds that deportation would breach his right to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights.
It leaves the government’s strategy for deporting terror suspects in tatters, as 11 other suspects awaiting deportation hearings, who include Jordanians and Algerians, are likely to rely on the ruling to keep them in Britain.
Despite Tony Blair’s promise in the aftermath of the suicide bombings on July 7, 2005 that “the rules of the game have changed”, no terror suspects have yet been forcibly removed from the country.
Last night Jacqui Smith said: “The Government’s priority is to protect public safety and national security and we will take all steps necessary to do so.
“I am extremely disappointed that the courts have granted Abu Qatada bail, albeit with very strict conditions. 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.”
Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Home Secretary, said Qatada’s presence in the UK was “offensive” and called for him to be prosecuted in this country, while Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the government’s terrorism policies were “not working”.
Whilst on bail Qatada will not be allowed a mobile phone or use of the internet, and his visits will be restricted to family members and solicitors. Among those who are specifically banned from visiting him under the terms of his bail conditions are Osama bin Laden, his Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Hamza.
Qatada became one of Britain’s most wanted men in December 2001 when he disappeared after the government announced plans to detain terror suspects without trial. He was tracked down in October 2002 and taken to Belmarsh high security prison in east London, before being released under a control order in 2005. In August that year he was taken back into custody following Jordan’s application for extradition.
When the decision to block his extradition was announced in April, Norman Kember, the British aid worker held hostage in Iraq, offered to put up bail money because Qatada had made an appeal for his release in November 2005. Mr Kember was eventually released by the SAS.
Qatada came to Britain in 1993 using a fake passport and was granted refugee status after claiming asylum for his wife and three children. He has since had two more children, who have British citizenship because they were born here.
The Home Office say he has provided religious and spiritual advice to extremist groups almost from the moment he arrived in the UK.
Qatada was described as bin Laden’s “right hand man in Europe” in 2001 by a Spanish judge investigating European links to the September 11 attacks.