x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Abu Qatada denies Jordan terror charges after UK expulsion

Al Qaeda-linked cleric Abu Qatada has pleaded not guilty to terror charges pressed by Jordanian military prosecutors just hours after his deportation from Britain.

AMMAN // Al Qaeda-linked cleric Abu Qatada pleaded not guilty yesterday to terror charges pressed by Jordanian military prosecutors just hours after his deportation from Britain.

Britain's expulsion of the Palestinian-born preacher after a decade-long legal battle drew expressions of delight from the UK prime minister, David Cameron.

Abu Qatada, who had been in and out of British prisons since 2002 even though he was never convicted of any offence, had once been described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe.

"Abu Qatada pleaded not guilty," his lawyer, Taysir Diab, said after a closed-door hearing before a military tribunal.

Mr Diab said he would ask the court today to release Abu Qatada on bail.

Abu Qatada was taken to the courthouse near Marka military airfield in east Amman just hours after he was flown in from Britain.

"State security court prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts," a judicial official said.

"He was remanded in judicial custody for 15 days in the Muwaqqar prison" in eastern Jordan, the official said.

Muwaqqar is a maximum security facility built in 2007 that houses 1,100 inmates, most of them terror convicts.

"Abu Qatada told prosecutors that it was his wish to return to Jordan and that he is satisfied with that," Mr Diab said.

A date for the trial has not yet been set.

"I still do not know if he is in solitary confinement. The prosecutors' decision did not specify," Mr Diab said.

Reporters were not allowed into the courtroom despite a pledge by the information minister Mohammad Momani of "transparency" in Jordan's handling of Abu Qatada's retrial.

Abu Qatada was condemned to death in absentia in 1999 for conspiracy to carry out terror attacks, including on the American school in Amman, but the sentence was immediately commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.

In 2000, he was sentenced in his absence to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on tourists in Jordan during millennium celebrations.

Jordanian law gives him the right to a retrial with him present in the dock.

Mr Cameron hailed the final removal of Abu Qatada from Britain after a legal battle that cost the taxpayer £1.7 million (Dh9.3m).

"I was absolutely delighted. This is something this government said it would get done, and we have got it done," Mr Cameron said.

"It's an issue that, like the rest of the country, has made my blood boil."

Britain was finally able to expel Abu Qatada, 53, a father of five, to Jordan after the two governments last month ratified a treaty that guaranteed evidence obtained by torture would not be used in his retrial.

"His retrial will be conducted in line with international standards, protecting his rights and ensuring justice, fairness, credibility and transparency," Mr Momani, the information minister, said.

Abu Qatada's father and three brothers met him at court.

"I shook hands with Abu Qatada and kissed him and kissed his hands. I was surprised when I heard him talking to the prosecutors because he was calm. He was usually sharp-tongued," his brother, Mohammed, said.

"Abu Qatada kissed the feet and hands of my father. We all cried."

London had been trying to deport Abu Qatada since 2005 but British and European courts had blocked his expulsion on the grounds that evidence might be used against him that had been obtained by torture.

But after years of legal battles his lawyers unexpectedly said in May that he would return once the fair trial treaty was ratified by the Jordanian parliament.

He was taken from prison in an armoured police van to a military airfield on the outskirts of London, from where he was flown out.

He was dressed in a white robe as he boarded the aircraft at the RAF Northolt base. He had earlier left high security Belmarsh jail in south-east London in the van flanked by three police cars.

He was born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in the now Israeli-occupied West Bank, which was in Jordan at the time of his birth.

Videotapes of his sermons were allegedly found in the Hamburg flat of the September 11 attacks ringleader Mohammed Atta.

Top Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon once branded Abu Qatada Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, although the cleric denies ever having met him.