Abu Qatada yesterday denied plotting al-Qaeda inspired terror attacks at a court in Jordan after a near-decade long battle to deport the radical cleric finally saw him board a plane out of Britain.
The 53-year-old, dressed in robes and headscarf, was escorted by Scotland Yard police officers on to a private flight from RAF Northolt, in west London, yesterday morning.
Upon his flight arriving in the blistering Jordanian heat, the father of five was taken to a military court on the outskirts of the capital Amman, where he has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to carry out terror attacks in 1999 and 2000.
Charges faced by Qatada cover a foiled plot against the American school in Amman and an alleged attack on Israeli and American tourists during new year celebrations.
His departure has triggered a wave of relief at Westminster. Prime Minister David Cameron said: “This is something this government said it would get done and we have got it done, and it is an issue that has made my blood boil that this man who has no right to be in our country, who is a threat to our country and that it took so long and was so difficult to deport him, but we have done it, he is back in Jordan, and that is excellent news.”
Home Secretary Theresa May added: “I am glad that this government’s determination to see him on a plane has been vindicated and that we have at last achieved what previous governments, parliament and the British public have long called for.”
Following numerous courtroom battles, it was a treaty signed between the UK and Jordan that finally secured Qatada’s departure, giving him the assurances he needed to leave.
In Jordan, Qatada’s lawyer, Tayseer Thiab, told reporters his client “told military prosecutors that he is not guilty of terrorism and rejected the charges against him”.
A military prosecutor said he will be detained for 15 days pending further questioning at Muwaqar I, a prison in Amman’s south-eastern industrial suburb of Sahab. However, Mr Thiab is understood to be preparing a bail application for as early as today.
Information minister Mohammed Momani said Jordan “is keen on credibility and transparency” in handling Qatada.
He added that the deportation “sends a message to all fugitives that they will face justice in Jordan”.
Outside the court in Amman, Qatada’s father, Mahmoud, and an unidentified relative stood at the entrance but were not allowed to enter.
“I have nothing to say, except that my son is innocent and I hope the court will set him free,” Qatada’s father told reporters.
Once dubbed Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, Qatada spent his final months in the UK in Belmarsh prison, after breaching a bail condition which restricted use of mobile phones and other communication devices.
The government has been trying to deport him to Jordan, where he was convicted of terror charges in his absence in 1999, for about eight years.
Qatada repeatedly used human rights laws to avoid removal.
This argument, originally rejected by British courts, was upheld by judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, forcing Mrs May to seek new legal guarantees from Jordan that his rights would not be breached.
The treaty that was drawn up aimed to allay fears that evidence extracted through torture will be used against the father of five at a retrial.
Qatada pledged in May to leave Britain if and when the treaty was fully ratified, a process concluded earlier this week.
Keith Vaz MP, who as chairman of the home affairs select committee, has scrutinised the government’s efforts to deport Qatada, said: “Only 446 days after the Home Secretary said Abu Qatada would be on a plane shortly, he has finally reached the end of the runway.
“In the end, it was the king of Jordan who secured his departure by agreeing to this treaty.
“The Home Secretary’s legal advisers will have questions to answer as to why they didn’t conceive of this scheme earlier which would have prevented a cost to the taxpayer of £1.7 million.”
It was recently disclosed that the deportation fight since 2005 included £647,658 for Qatada’s legal aid costs and more than £1m in Home Office legal costs.
Mrs May vowed to “make sense of our human rights laws” and “remove the many layers of appeals available to foreign nationals we want to deport”.
Kingdom’s changing times
When Abu Qatada left Jordan in 1993, it was engaged in tough peace negotiations with Israel and the US in the wake of the first Gulf War. King Hussein was on the throne and it was under deep economic and diplomatic strain.
The Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty was signed in 1994 – after Qatada had fled the country for the UK – ending a 46-year official state of war.
By the late 1990s, Jordan’s unemployment rate had soared to 25 per cent, while nearly 50 per cent of those who were employed were on the government payroll.
King Hussein died in 1999, leaving the throne to his son, King Abdullah II, pictured. He has helped create one of the freest economies in the region.
The long road that ended in an Amman courtroom
Who is he?
Abu Qatada, real name Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, is a radical cleric who has been living in Britain since he arrived on a forged passport in September 1993 and claimed asylum. He has praised the 11 September terror attacks on New York and Washington, advocated the killing of Jews and issued a “fatwa” justifying the killing of converts from Islam, their wives and children in Algeria. He is considered by the UK authorities to pose a significant threat to national security.
What did the government do to deport him to Jordan?
Qatada was convicted in his absence in Jordan of involvement with terror attacks in 1998 and faces a retrial there. He has been held in detention in the UK for much of the last decade – “deprived of his liberty more than any other non-convicted person in British history”, according to his barrister, Daniel Friedman, QC.
What has taken so long?
Qatada used his human rights to make a series of challenges to moves to deport him. It was claimed that evidence from Qatada’s former co-defendants, Abu Hawsher and Abdul al-Hamasher, had been obtained by torture. Last November, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission allowed his most recent appeal against deportation. This decision was in turn appealed against by the Home Office but the department lost. However, a new treaty drawn up by the UK and Jordan offered Qatada the assurances he wanted for a fair trial. The treaty was ratified at the end of June.
What does the treaty offer?
The treaty aims to address the issue of whether Qatada will receive a fair trial in Jordan – specifically that the evidence obtained through torture is not used against him. Home Secretary Theresa May obtained assurances from the Jordanians that Qatada’s case “will be
heard in public with civilian judges” and “his conviction in absentia will be quashed immediately” upon his return to Jordan.
September 1993 – The Jordanian claims asylum when he arrives in Britain on a forged passport.
April 1999 – He is convicted in his absence on terror charges in Jordan and sentenced to life imprisonment.
February 2001 – He is arrested by anti-terror police over his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb Strasbourg Christmas market.
December 2001 – Qatada becomes one of Britain’s most wanted men after going on the run.
October 2002 – He is arrested by police and detained in Belmarsh high-security jail.
March 2005 – Qatada is freed on conditional bail and placed on a control order.
August 2005 – The preacher is arrested under immigration rules as the government seeks to deport him to Jordan.
April 2008 – The Court of Appeal rules that deporting Qatada would breach his human rights because evidence used against him in Jordan might have been obtained through torture.
May 2008 – Qatada is granted bail by the immigration tribunal but told he must stay indoors 22 hours a day.
February 2009 – In a landmark judgment, five Law Lords back the government’s policy of removing terror suspects from Britain on the basis of assurances from foreign governments. It is ruled Qatada can be deported to Jordan to face a retrial.
January 2012 – European judges rule that the cleric can be sent back to Jordan with diplomatic assurances but he cannot be deported while “there remains a real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him”.
April 23 – The Court of Appeal refuses the government permission to take its fight to remove Qatada from the UK to the Supreme Court.
April 24 – Home Secretary Theresa May tells the Commons that a new treaty signed by the UK and Jordan will “finally make possible” Qatada’s deportation.