London: A British court ruled on Monday that an extremist cleric described as one of Europe’s leading al Qaeda operatives should be released on bail.
After six years in custody, Abu Qatada could be freed within days for three months under stringent conditions, a judge at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in London said.
Abu Qatada has been fighting to be released after the European Court of Human Rights ruled last month he should not be deported to face terror charges in Jordan due to concerns that evidence obtained by torture would be used against him.
The British government wants to keep him in a high security prison while continuing a legal fight to have him deported. But Ed Fitzgerald, the lawyer representing Abu Qatada, told immigration judge John Mitting that the cleric had been held for too long without charges.
“The risk of absconding ... the risk of further offending, there comes a point when it’s just too long,” Fitzgerald said.
Mitting said on Monday that Britain’s Home Office has three months to show progress in negotiating with Jordan, but he added that he believed it would be a long time before a decision on Abu Qatada’s deportation could be reached in light of the European court’s decision.
The judge said if by the end of the three months there is no progress in the talks, “it’s very likely that I would consider that a continued deprivation of liberty is no longer justified”.
Abu Qatada — whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman — is an extremist Muslim preacher from Jordan who has been described in both Spanish and British courts as a leading al Qaeda figure in Europe.
He has never faced criminal charges in Britain, but authorities in the UK have accused him of advising militants and raising money for terrorist attacks.
Mitting ruled that in the next three months, Abu Qatada will be confined to his home except for two one-hour periods each day. He will also be allowed to take one of his children to school.
A Palestinian-Jordanian citizen, Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in 1993 and was detained in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws that at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be held in jail without charge.
Although Abu Qatada was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, he was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months and held pending his deportation to face terrorism charges in Jordan.
He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and would face a retrial there if deported from Britain.