The European Court of Human Rights ruling that Abu Qatada cannot be extradited to his native Jordan leaves Britain with a dilemma.
UK stuck with Abu Qatada, the 'preacher of hate' it can't get rid of
The British government yesterday found itself stuck on the horns of a dilemma over what to do next about "preacher of hate" Abu Qatada.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg ruled that Qatada, once described by a judge as the "spiritual head of the mujaheddin in Britain", should not be extradited to his native Jordan, where he has twice been convicted in absentia of terrorism charges.
The ruling, though, was merely the latest chapter in a decade-long legal battle that the 51-year-old cleric has fought against extradition. The difficulty now facing the British government is to ensure that this latest turn of events is not the last.
The UK home secretary, Theresa May, has promised: "This is not the end of the road. We will now consider all the legal options available to us."
Her comments did little to hide the fact the British have little idea what to do next. Basically, there are three options:
• The government could appeal on a legal technicality to the upper chamber of the human-rights court. Such an appeal would have to be made within the next 88 days
• It could seek assurances from the Jordanian government that evidence used in any future trial had not been obtained by torture: the reason the Strasbourg court blocked his extradition
• It could put Qatada on trial in Britain itself.
A fourth option would be to free the cleric from a high-security prison in England after more than 10 years in detention. But nobody in government wants that. Qatada initially was jailed in Britain on charges of aiding a German terror cell but he was never charged. He remains in custody because of the Jordanian extradition issue.
"There are problems with all the acceptable options," said a diplomat in London, speaking on terms of anonymity. "An appeal to the ECHR upper chamber would be highly technical and, if it failed, ministers might have little option but to free a self-declared Al Qaeda sympathiser.
"Jordan might be willing to give undertakings about evidence being obtained torture-free, but there are indications that Amman is much less willing to have a show trial involving Qatada than it was a dozen or so years ago."
Qatada faces more charges in Jordan but Britain has not been able to send him back because Qatada claims the evidence against him was obtained from two witnesses who had been tortured. Citing the torture issue, he appealed to the ECHR to block his extradition, which it did on Tuesday.
Prosecuting him in Britain is problematic also.
"The perennial problem of putting him on trial in Britain revolves around being able to provide the necessary forensic evidence. Successive governments have simply not been willing to expose the sources of the information against him. And holding views about terrorist acts that most people would find unacceptable, is not, in most cases, a crime in Britain."
The prime minister, David Cameron, acknowledged on Wednesday that the situation was "immensely frustrating". He told the House of Commons: "I do think a country like Britain, that has got such a long tradition of human rights, should be able to deport people who mean us harm.
"That principle is vitally important. We're not just going to have strong rhetoric about it - I'm going to Strasbourg next week to make the argument that this is a good time to actually make reforms to the European Court of Human Rights and make sure it acts in a more proportionate way."
Even if he succeeds, though, it is unlikely to affect the case of Abu Qatada, who arrived in Britain on a forged passport in September, 1993, after living in Pakistan. He was granted refugee status the following year.
He began preaching in London, telling his mainly Algerian and Egyptian followers that, under Islam, the killing of the wives and children of "apostates" was justified. He called for the deaths of Jews and sought to justify the September 11 attacks. Copies of his preachings were found in a flat in Hamburg used by Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 ringleaders.
When Qatada was first taken into detention in 2002, an immigration court judge described him as a "truly dangerous individual".
Yet, while very few people want him to remain in Britain, even fewer people seem to know how to get him rid of him.