Who is Abu Qatada and why is Britain unable to deport him?

Britain released Islamist preacher Abu Qatada on bail Monday after a British court ruled he could not be extradited to Jordan. 

Matt Dunham/AP
Abu Qatada, left, gets out of the rear of a vehicle as he returns to his residence in London on Tuesday. The radical Islamist cleric cannot be deported from Britain to Jordan to face terrorism charges, judges ruled Monday in the latest twist in a protracted legal saga.

Monday saw the release of Islamist preacher Abu Qatada from prison in Britain, after a British court ruled that he could not be extradited to Jordan. The ruling is just the latest setback for the government, which has been unsuccessfully trying to remove Mr. Qatada for the better part of a decade. But while a familiar name and face to British readers, Qatada is not well known on this side of the Atlantic. 

Who is Abu Qatada?

Qatada is a radical Islamist preacher and alleged terrorism supporter currently living in Britain. Born in Bethlehem while the city was under Jordan's control, Qatada is of Palestinian descent and also holds Jordanian citizenship.

Qatada arrived in Britain in September 1993, seeking asylum on the basis of having been tortured by Jordanian authorities, and was granted refugee status a year later.

He quickly became a prominent figure, both in London's militant Islamic community and abroad, by advocating the overthrow of oppressive, foreign-backed governments in the Middle East in favor of regimes founded on Islam. Qatada's sermons also backed the use of violence against apostates – including their wives and children – as religiously justified.

Why is the British government trying to deport him?

Qatada was not initially regarded as a domestic threat – indeed, MI5, the British security agency, attempted to consult with him more than once for better understanding of the country's Islamist community. But by the end of the 1990s, the British government had begun to revise its opinion of Qatada, who had become even more vocally hardline, targeting Jews in his sermons and speaking out in favor of suicide attacks.

At the same time in Jordan, Qatada was charged and convicted in absentia for several terrorism-related crimes. In 1998, he was sentenced to death for supporting attacks on foreign targets in Jordan, though his sentence was quickly commuted to life in prison. And then in 2000, he received a 15-year sentence for supporting similar attacks against tourists attending Jordan's millennium celebrations. Jordanian prosecutors said he provided backing for both operations from Britain.

Following Sept. 11, 2001, Britain enacted laws empowering the government to detain terrorism suspects without charge. Qatada, whose teachings were said to have influenced both Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th 9/11 hijacker," and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, was by then a clear concern for the United Kingdom. Although initially able to avoid capture, he was arrested in October 2002. Since then, Qatada has been in and out of jail pending his deportation to Jordan, though he denies supporting terrorism.

Why was he set free?

The short answer is that Jordan's case against Qatada appears too dependent on evidence extracted via torture.

Earlier this year, judges at the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Qatada could not be extradited to Jordan because Jordanian authorities had not provided assurances that torture-derived evidence would not be used to convict him. Torture is routinely used to interrogate prisoners in Jordan, according to Human Rights Watch. In response, Britain and Jordan signed an agreement on Qatada's extradition that stipulated he would not be subjected to torture or other mistreatment at the hands of Jordanian officials.

But on Monday, Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled that Jordan had supplied insufficient assurances that the evidence used against Qatada would not be based on testimony from other tortured witnesses. Despite the diplomatic agreement's assurances, the SIAC notes that there was a "high probability" that statements from two witnesses would be used against Qatada in Jordan, and there was a "real risk" that the testimony from the two had been procured through torture. As such, Qatada is unlikely to receive a fair trial in Jordan, the SIAC writes, and so his extradition cannot be allowed.

What can the British government do now?

Although the SIAC ruling forbids Qatada's present deportation, it does explain how the hurdles to his extradition might be overcome. At the moment, though, the remedies lie largely in the hands of the Jordanian authorities. The SIAC writes that before Qatada could be extradited, Jordan would have to change its criminal code or issue "authoritative rulings" that would bar the use of the witnesses' testimony against him. But such changes could still take years: both because of bureaucratic delays on the Jordanian side, and because Qatada would almost certainly be allowed to appeal any extradition based on those changes.

Alternatively, Britain could pursue legal charges against Qatada in its own courts. Despite the government's long, drawn-out efforts to hand Qatada off to Jordan – not to mention his nearly decade-long incarceration – he has never faced charges within the United Kingdom itself. British media commentators have questioned why the government never pursued charges itself. Liberal Democrat Lord MacDonald, the director of public prosecutions from 2003 to 2008, told the BBC that he had never been shown sufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution.

Another possibility is for Britain to extradite Qatada to another country besides Jordan to face trial. Qatada is wanted in numerous countries, including the US, where Britain was able to successfully extradite another firebrand Islamist preacher, Abu Hamza, two months ago. But that could also take years – Abu Hamza was only extradited after eight years of appeals.

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