LONDON (Reuters) - Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada will return to Jordan voluntarily when the Jordanian parliament ratifies a deal with Britain that ensures he will receive a fair trial, the cleric’s lawyer told a London court on Friday.
Abu Qatada’s pledge is a victory for the British government after nearly eight years of unsuccessful attempts to deport the cleric, who is accused of spreading radical ideas that once inspired one of the September 11, 2001 hijackers.
Courts have repeatedly blocked deportation on the grounds that a trial in Jordan of Abu Qatada, whose real name is Mohammed Othman, risked being tainted by the use of evidence obtained using torture.
Britain last month announced it had signed a new treaty with Jordan aimed at addressing those concerns.
“If and when the Jordanian parliament ratifies that treaty, Mr Othman will voluntarily return to Jordan,” Edward Fitzgerald, a lawyer representing him, told a special immigration tribunal.
That would be a relief to Home Secretary Theresa May, the British interior minister, who has faced media pressure over repeated failures to deport Abu Qatada.
“The Home Secretary’s focus remains on seeing Abu Qatada returned to Jordan at the earliest opportunity,” Security Minister James Brokenshire said in a statement issued by the Home Office shortly after the news from court emerged.
“We continue to pursue this case before the courts and to work with the Jordanian government to achieve this.”
Yvette Cooper, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman for interior affairs, said: “This could be very good news if it means Abu Qatada returns to Jordan as soon as possible”.
The deportation of Abu Qatada has become a cause celebre for some popular newspapers that have pilloried the government over the issue. The Sun tabloid has a special logo for stories on the cleric that reads “Must try harder to kick out Qatada”.
Once described by a Spanish judge as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, Abu Qatada is seen as a security risk in Britain but has never been charged with any offence there.
Jordan convicted 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.
The cleric 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.
He was sent back to jail on March 9 this year after police found 17 mobile phones, 3 USB sticks, five digital mobile devices and 55 recordable CDs or DVDs in his house.
Friday’s court hearing was to hear his application for bail. The hearing was adjourned until March 20.
Judge Stephen Irwin asked for evidence to be presented at the next hearing about how long it would take for the new treaty to come into force in Jordan.
The judge also said Abu Qatada’s bail terms were aimed at “stopping this man from communicating his ideas” and the breaches had been “significant”. He asked for further evidence about the breaches to be presented at the next hearing.
In the meantime, Abu Qatada remains in prison.
Editing by Alistair Lyon