He's been described by a Spanish judge as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe. Videos of his sermons littered the Hamburg apartment of Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian terrorist who crashed a jetliner into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet on Monday night, Abu Qatada walked free from a high security prison in Britain after a European court blocked the U.K. from deporting him to Jordan, where he is wanted on terrorism charges.
Qatada's release on extremely stringent bail conditions has prompted outrage in Britain and served as a lightning rod for discontent over the handling of Muslim extremists in the country. If the government cannot break the impasse blocking the Jordanian-born cleric's extradition to his home country within three months, then U.K. judges may have to lift the bail conditions raising fears that he may once again be able to operate in Europe. The case has also prompted concerns that other Islamic militants currently detained in U.K. jails could use Qatada's case as a precedent and turn to European courts to prevent removal to the United States on terrorism charges.
Releasing Qatada, whose real name is Omar Othman, isn't what the British government wanted to do. But Britain's top immigration judge concluded that he had no choice but to let the preacher leave prison on bail after he had languished for six and a half years in detention without facing criminal charges or trial. (Qatada was first arrested in Britain after the 9/11 attacks, with British courts later concluding that "his reach and the depth of his influence ... is formidable" and that he "provides a religious justification for ... acts of violence and terror." The U.K. has declined to prosecute him, however, for fear of revealing intelligence methods and sources.)
Qatada is not exactly walking free: the conditions of his bail are the strictest possible under British law. He cannot use a cell phone or computer, lead prayers, attend mosque, or take any of his five children to school. For 22 hours a day, he will not be allowed to leave his London home. Yet many regard even this degree of freedom as too much for a man who came to Britain illegally using a fake passport in 1993 and has preached hate while subsisting on the taxpayer dime ever since.
The case highlights the stark differences between the handling of terrorism suspects in the U.K. and the United States. Because Britain has no Guantanamo Bay, it's had to try suspected terrorists in civilian courts. In many cases, this has significantly slowed or prevented the deportation of suspects due to human rights concerns. This was the case with Qatada until last year when the government finally cleared the last legal hurdle and Britain's Supreme Court ruled in favor of his extradition to Jordan. Britain, unlike the U.S., however, is subject to another judicial authority: the European Court of Human Rights. And last week, that court ruled that Qatada could not be returned to Jordan for fear that evidence obtained through torture might be admitted at trial.
Many herald this as the right decision a triumph for the rule of law. Amnesty International, for instance, called the ruling "a positive stand against torture," though it did decry the court's conclusion that "diplomatic assurances" could help mitigate the risk of torture. For others, however, the decision has provoked fury. Conservative ministers are frothing at the mouth over the fact that Britain was compelled to bow to a European court. David Cameron's government, meanwhile, is in danger of appearing impotent to evict a potentially dangerous extremist from British soil.
On Feb. 7, Home Secretary Teresa May vented the government's frustration before Parliament. "It simply isn't acceptable that after guarantees from the Jordanians about his treatment, after British courts have found that he is dangerous, after his removal has been approved by the highest courts in our land, we still cannot deport dangerous foreign nationals," she told MPs. "The right place for a terrorist is a prison cell. The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell far away from Britain."
There is some justification for the government's anger. It responded to concerns raised by the European court in 2005 by securing a memorandum of understanding with Jordan that Qatada would not be tortured upon his return. With its latest ruling, the court has moved the goal posts, insisting not only that an agreement between the U.K. and Jordan protect Qatada from torture, but also guarantee him a trial that does not rely on evidence procured via torture. The Jordanians insist that such evidence would not be used, but the court says it is "unconvinced" that Jordan's guarantees have "any real practical value."
This is the first time the European court has made this particular argument against deportation, and some are saying enough is enough. Yesterday, as Qatada was being released, London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the cleric is unnecessarily costing the U.K. "a small fortune," while senior Conservative politician Peter Bone said Britain should put the safety of its citizens over the "so-called rights of an extremist terrorist." The right-wing Sun tabloid has started a petition to have Qatada thrown out, which it says has been signed by 79,000 readers so far.
Downing Street, meanwhile, knows it must act. A Home Office minister was dispatched to Jordan last night to obtain the country's assurance that Qatada would not face a trial that used evidence obtain by torture if he were deported by Britain.Some, however, are calling for the U.K. to simply defy the European court's ruling and put Qatada on a plane back to Jordan immediately. If Britain did that, it wouldn't be the first country to go against the human rights court Italy and France have both sent suspected militants packing in defiance of the court's rulings in recent years. But it looks as if Britain will continue to play by the rules for now. Whether that will change if Qatada's bail is lifted and he is completely free remains to be seen.