LONDON (Reuters) - A radical Muslim cleric lost his latest legal bid on Tuesday to be freed from the British jail where he is being held pending attempts to deport him to Jordan to face terrorism charges.
The decision at London’s High Court to refuse Abu Qatada bail will be a relief to the British government which feared his release during the Olympics would overburden security services and police stretched by their duties protecting the Games.
Abu Qatada’s lawyers had challenged a judge’s previous ruling that freeing the preacher at such a time would have been “exceptionally problematic” given the risk of him absconding.
Two judges at the High Court rejected their requests to review whether Abu Qatada’s detention was legal and release him on bail.
Britain has been trying for more than a decade to deport the Jordanian cleric of Palestinian origin, once described by a Spanish judge as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”.
During that time Abu Qatada has spent nearly seven years in detention without charge, a period one of his lawyers said was so long that any continuation should be deemed unlawful.
Edward Fitzgerald told the court that Abu Qatada’s deportation was unlikely to be imminent and that his case could drag on for at least another year.
“However great the risk, there becomes a point when it ceases to be lawful to maintain detention,” he said.
Government lawyer Robin Tam said Abu Qatada still posed a high national security risk and there was also a significant danger that he would abscond.
The Islamist preacher, who was not present at the hearing, has been in and out of jail since he was first detained under British anti-terrorism laws in 2002.
Had he been released, he would probably have been required to remain at his London home under virtual house arrest, as was the case for two months earlier this year, before he was returned to a maximum security prison in April.
Jordan has convicted him in his absence of sending encouraging messages to militants there who were planning two bomb attacks in 1999 and 2000.
Britain says videotapes of his sermons influenced Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
A further two-week hearing on the legality of the cleric’s deportation is due in October, with a ruling expected the following month.
The government will argue it has overcome a European Court of Human Rights ruling in January that Abu Qatada could not be deported as he would not receive a fair hearing in Jordan.
Britain says a 2005 deal with Jordan and more recent diplomatic reassurances will ensure that Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Othman, will be given a fair trial there.
Writing by Tim Castle; Editing by Alistair Lyon