AMMAN (Reuters) - Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada told a Jordanian court on Tuesday he was not guilty of terrorism charges and he challenged its authority to try him under the terms of his deportation from Britain.
Appearing in court in brown prison fatigues, Abu Qatada said the presence of a military judge in the panel of three violated the agreement under which he was flown back to Jordan in July after many years of legal battles in Britain.
The Islamist cleric had already been sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to carry out al Qaeda-style attacks against U.S. and other targets inside Jordan.
He is now being retried, with the prosecution arguing he was a mentor to jihadist cells in Jordan while he was in Britain, providing both spiritual and material support to a campaign of violence during the late 1990s inside Jordan, whose pro-Western policies made it an al Qaeda target.
“I have been prevented from defending myself for a long period, and God knows that I am innocent,” said Abu Qatada, saying that the charges against him were fabricated.
“There has been a betrayal of the agreement under which I have come. There is now a military judge...I have come to be tried by civilian judges.”
“This court is a betrayal of the agreement and I don’t recognize it,” said Abu Qatada, whose real name is Mahmoud Othman.
His lawyer Ghazi Thuneibat called for Abu Qatada’s release, saying his rights had been violated by the presence of the military judge and reliance on evidence that was extracted under torture from other defendants.
Past attempts to extradite Abu Qatada were hampered by concern that evidence to be used in Jordan may have been obtained through torture, making his deportation illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights.
A legal deal signed by Jordan and Britain last April included guarantees against the use of such evidence. That, along with a European court ruling, had persuaded Abu Qatada to return to Jordan, Thuneibat said.
“My client came to Jordan on the legal assurances by the highest court in Europe that use of evidence obtained through torture will not be used in this retrial. These (EU) court decisions overrule national laws,” the lawyer said.
“These confessions were given under torture and so using them in a retrial makes this an unjust trial,” he said.
Prosecutor Colonel Fawaz al-Atoum said he rejected foreign judicial rulings that challenge the operations of the state security court.
“The Jordanian constitution rises above any other laws or agreements,” Atoum said, in apparent reference to the EU court.
Jordanian officials who deny confessions were extracted under torture have pledged a fair trial for Abu Qatada.
The military tribunals have been criticized by international human rights organizations which have called for their abolition and for civilians to face trial in civilian courts.
Linked by a Spanish judge to the late al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Abu Qatada was in and out of jail in Britain since first being arrested in 2001. He was sent back to prison last March for breaching his bail conditions.
Jordanian security officials and experts on Islamist radical groups say Abu Qatada’s ideological writings have influenced many Qaeda youths.
Sermons of the heavily bearded Abu Qatada were found in a Hamburg flat used by some of those who carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In 2005, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings that ripped through luxury hotels in Jordan’s capital, killing dozens of people.
Jordanian authorities have arrested scores of hardline Islamists in recent months along its border with Syria as they were about to cross the frontier to join jihadist groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi, Writing by Dominic Evans, Editing by Angus MacSwan