LONDON A radical preacher accused of giving spiritual inspiration to one of the 9/11 hijackers lost a legal bid in the European courts on Wednesday to challenge Britain's long-running attempts to deport him to Jordan to stand trial on terrorism charges.
The European Court of Human Rights rejected Abu Qatada's request to refer his case to its most senior panel of appeal judges, the latest stage in a legal battle that has dogged British governments for a decade.
Qatada says he could face torture if he is sent to Jordan, but the European court ruled Britain had received satisfactory assurances from the Middle East state that he would not be mistreated.
Jordan has found Qatada guilty in his absence of sending encouragement from Britain to militants in Jordan planning two bombing attacks in 1999 and 2000. He would be retried in Jordan if he is deported.
However, the seven European judges in Strasbourg said on Wednesday that Britain should not deport Qatada before receiving further assurances from Jordan that the preacher's retrial would not include evidence obtained by the torture of a co-defendant.
"It (such evidence) would be of considerable, perhaps decisive, importance," the court said in a statement. "In the absence of any assurance by Jordan that the torture evidence would not be used...his deportation to Jordan to be retried would give rise to a flagrant denial of justice."
Britain says a 2005 deal with Jordan and more recent diplomatic assurances would ensure that Qatada - once described by a Spanish judge as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe" - receives a fair trial and would not be mistreated.
"I am confident the assurances we have from Jordan mean we can put Qatada on a plane and get him out of Britain," said British Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May.
Even though the European ruling paved the way for Britain's courts to deport Qatada, it was embarrassing for May because it confirmed that the cleric had lodged his appeal request in time, contradicting her repeated claims that he had been too late.
The case has been a headache for successive British governments, accused by critics of not doing enough to deport Qatada. Ministers say the preacher is still a national security risk and had hoped to deport him before London hosts the Olympic Games in July and August.
Britain says videotapes of his sermons influenced Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Qatada's lawyers accused the government of rushing the case in a "contrived political spectacle...that was wrong factually as well as legally".
"The political situation in Jordan has worsened ... Reports of the torture of civilians in secret sites have increased," his British law firm Birnberg Peirce & Partners said in a statement. "The military courts are continuing just as before, the instability of the regime is greater.
"We trust that the courts here will see the claims made by the Secretary of State in their true light, an attempt to circumvent the binding decision of the European court on facts that have not changed, despite desperate attempts to insist otherwise."
Amnesty International said the UK courts must "take a cold, hard look at Jordan's record on torture and unfair trials".
"The simple truth is that Abu Qatada will be at personal risk of torture and of receiving an unfair trial in Jordan's State Security Court," said Amnesty's UK Director Kate Allen.
Qatada, whose real name is Omar Othman, has been in and out of jail since he was first detained without charge under British anti-terrorism laws in 2002. He is currently being held in a top security prison and has made a new bid to win bail.
(Editing by Pravin Char)