LONDON (Reuters) - Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada could be deported to Jordan to face trial on terrorism charges within weeks, a British court heard on Monday, and it ruled he should remain in jail in the meantime to prevent him from absconding.
Abu Qatada’s deportation to Jordan, which the British government has been trying to achieve for eight years, is expected to take place within weeks when Jordan ratifies a new treaty with Britain, according to evidence shown to the court.
London says Abu Qatada, who is accused of spreading radical ideas that inspired one of the September 11, 2001 hijackers, poses a national security risk, but he has never been charged with any offence in Britain.
The British courts have repeatedly blocked his deportation on the grounds that a trial in Jordan risked being tainted by evidence obtained using torture.
Britain announced last month it had signed a new treaty with Jordan aimed at addressing those concerns.
“There is a prospect of a treaty coming into force ... (that) raises the prospect of his acquittal relative to what we say are tainted charges,” said Danny Friedman, a lawyer for Abu Qatada, during the bail application hearing.
Friedman said there was no risk Abu Qatada would abscond as he was satisfied that once the treaty was in force the safest thing for him and his family to do would be to return to Jordan to face trial.
Jordan convicted Abu Qatada in his absence of encouraging militants there who planned bomb attacks in 1999 and 2000, but under a 2005 agreement between Amman and London he will be retried if he eventually returns.
He has been in and out of jail in Britain since first being arrested in 2001 and in recent years has been living at a house in London under tight bail conditions including a 16-hour curfew and a ban on using any telecommunications equipment.
The cleric, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, was sent back to jail in March after police found 17 mobile phones, 3 USB sticks, five digital mobile devices and 55 recordable CDs or DVDs in his house.
Judge Stephen Irwin told the hearing at a special immigration tribunal that bail was denied for two main reasons - that the breaches of bail terms discovered in March were serious and that there was a risk Abu Qatada might abscond.
“He is highly intelligent, has a range of sympathetic and supportive contacts, and his risk to national security is undiminished,” Irwin said.
Robin Tam, representing the British government at the bail hearing, cited a court judgment labeling Abu Qatada “a truly dangerous individual” with a significant extremist following, and said there was no reason to believe this had changed.
Citing an assessment provided by the British ambassador to Jordan, Tam said the treaty guaranteeing a trial untainted by torture would be ratified “within a matter of weeks”.
Tam told the court one of the USB sticks found in the bedroom of Abu Qatada’s eldest son contained “jihadist files” including a video made by “the media wing of al Qaeda”.
Tam also said that 5,000 pounds ($7,600) in cash was found in the house, raising fears that the cleric could be preparing to abscond as the prospect of deportation nears.
Friedman said Abu Qatada himself had not been using the devices found at his home, which belonged to his four children, and the money was to pay for one of his daughters’ school fees.
“He has been deprived of his liberty for longer than any other non-convicted person in modern British history,” he said.
Editing by Pravin Char