UK

Q&A: Abu Qatada and terrorism deportations

  • 9 May 2012
  • From the section UK

Senior judges at the European Court of Human Rights have ruled that radical cleric Abu Qatada cannot appeal against his deportation to Jordan. The UK has been attempting to remove him since 2005 and he is currently being held in a maximum security prison.

Who is Abu Qatada?

His real name is Omar Othman and he is a Palestinian-Jordanian Islamic scholar who was born in Bethlehem. He came to the UK in 1993 and is among a large group of Islamists who fled from the Middle East to London because they faced persecution.

Abu Qatada is an influential advocate of mujahideen causes. He is accused of threatening British national security by supporting terrorism, something he denies. He has never been charged with an offence in the UK, but has been held in detention and had his movements restricted by a control order because he was suspected of playing a key role in radicalisation.

What did the European Court rule in January?

Seven judges of the European Court of Human Rights - one of whom is British - blocked the deportation of cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan. He was convicted in his absence of terrorism offences there.

Why did the European court block the deportation?

In their ruling, the judges said that while they were satisfied that the preacher would not face ill-treatment if deported, he could not face a retrial in Jordan because the key evidence against him was obtained by torturing others. It said that sending him back to Jordan would legitimise that state's use of torture.

How important is this case?

This is the first time that the Strasbourg court has ruled that someone cannot be expelled because the torture of others would mean that they would be denied a fair trial. The case is enormously important for the UK because the government wants to deport other men who also say they would not be treated humanely or fairly in their home countries.

Why did this case end up at the European Court?

The Court of Appeal in London originally blocked Abu Qatada's deportation on broadly the same lines as those now used by Europe. But in 2009 the then Law Lords overturned the Court of Appeal's decision and said that the deportation could go ahead.

The lords ruled that Abu Qatada's rights would be protected if he were deported. Crucially, they ruled that while evidence against him may have been extracted by torture of another suspect, there were no reasonable grounds for believing that the Jordanian courts could not offer a fair trial.

Was the Strasbourg decision final?

Both sides had three months to appeal to the Grand Chamber of the court - its highest decision-making body. The court made clear that if the UK obtained an assurance from Jordan that evidence obtained by torture would not be used against Abu Qatada at trial, there would be nothing to stop his deportation. British ministers and officials struck a new deal with Jordan which they believed would satisfy the court.

However, Abu Qatada put in a legal challenge at the 11th hour, contesting the court's ruling that he would not personally face torture if deported.

Why did the deadline matter?

The appeal was hugely embarrassing for the Home Office. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told MPs that the deadline had passed - but court officials said it had not.

Mrs May ordered Abu Qatada's detention in April declaring that the European process had come to an end - and that she had the assurances on a fair trial from Jordan. That, she argued, meant the government could press ahead with the deportation because there were no outstanding human rights issues. If she was wrong about the deadline and the Grand Chamber looked at the case, it could have dragged on for a further year.

Worse still for the government, ministers feared the judges would re-examine the assurances that Jordan has already given to the UK.

The government has signed deportation deals known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) with four governments - Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia and Morocco. There is a further separate agreement with Algeria to look at deportations on a case-by-case basis. Each of these deals is supposedly a guarantee by the relevant government to protect the human rights of anyone who is deported and some 15 individuals are known to be facing deportation under MOUs.

So was the appeal accepted?

No. A panel of judges said it had arrived in time - but that they had refused it. The Home Office has suffered some political embarrassment in getting the deadline wrong - but given that the case has not been referred to the Grand Chamber, that no longer matters.

What happens now?

The case is back in the British courts - but the legal options have narrowed. Abu Qatada is appealing against the new Memorandum of Understanding which the UK argues proves he will get a fair trial. If he loses that hearing against his deportation, he can try to appeal on a point of law. He could theoretically take his case back to Strasbourg - but it is simpl;y not clear yet what will happen.

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