UK

The end of "Public Enemy Number One"

The deportation of Abu Qatada is a major triumph for the British government - and he was the last of the major terrorism suspects that the UK has long sought to deal with.

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Media captionThe BBC's Dominic Casciani describes the scene at RAF Northolt as the flight takes off

It was a dramatic night - and one many people thought they would never see.

The jet carrying Abu Qatada to Jordan fired up its engines and, with a roar, it took off right over our heads at RAF Northolt.

Back at the Home Office in central London, nobody had been taking any chances. James Brokenshire, the security minister, had been at his desk. Senior officials and lawyers were on standby to respond to any last-minute hitch.

But there was no appeal at the steps. The cleric, regarded by many as a religious fascist, stuck to his word. He boarded the plane quietly and then he was gone.

To all intents and purposes, Abu Qatada had become Public Enemy Number One.

His deportation was hugely important to government because he was the last in a list of major terrorism suspects the UK wanted to be rid of.

Last October, we saw the extradition of five men to the United States to face terrorism charges.

Three-year delay

Those cases, including the cleric Abu Hamza, were delayed for years because of a question over conditions in America's "supermax" jail for top terrorism suspects. The cases were so important and sensitive that most of these men were held in a special isolated unit in a maximum security jail.

Taken together with Abu Qatada and other less well-known cases, their conclusion marks the end of a very difficult era during which the government sought to harden security - but felt, rightly or wrongly, that the courts were pushing back in the name of human rights.

What made the Abu Qatada case the most difficult was that it was so much more complex.

This was a man whom the UK freely let in during the early 1990s. The Home Office accepted that he needed to be given asylum because he could be tortured or killed if he returned to Jordan.

The Security Service MI5 were interested in him and other jihadists who had fled the Middle East - but some of them became a threat as they aligned themselves with al-Qaeda's worldview.

Abu Qatada was influential because he could give a theological justification for suicide bombing. And that's why British judges didn't need much convincing that he had become a "truly dangerous individual".

The only problem was that he could not be put on a plane home because of the T word.

In 2008, the Court of Appeal said there was a real risk that Jordan would use evidence obtained through torture to convict him.

The Law Lords reversed that in 2009, saying the test was whether he could get a fair trial, even if there were problems with torture.

The cleric appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. It took three years to conclude that until Jordan had cleaned up its act, nobody could be sure that the suspect would get a fair trial.

So while the previous Labour government had negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with Jordan to protect a returnee's human rights, it just didn't go far enough.

The ruling looked disastrous.

As we now know, Home Secretary Theresa May came under enormous political pressure from her party and elements of the press to ignore the European Court and just deport him anyway.

She also came under pressure to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Treaty breakthrough

The breakthrough was the wide-ranging Treaty on co-operation on criminal matters. It provided the fair-trial guarantee - but it also gave something to the Jordanians: better British help in tracking down its fugitives.

Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said on Sunday: "In the end, it was the king of Jordan who secured his departure by agreeing to this treaty.

"The Home Secretary's legal advisers will have questions to answer as to why they didn't conceive of this scheme earlier, which would have prevented a cost to the taxpayer of £1.7m."

Mrs May has said she wants to remove the layers of appeal in deportation cases - but the facts and circumstances of the Abu Qatada case were unique.

Future similar cases may ultimately be resolved far more quickly whether or not the government tries to change the appeal system.

That's because there is now a lot of clear case law on the deportation or extradition of international terrorism suspects. All the toughest ones have now gone through the courts.

Judges can now look at all these previous cases to guide them, which should mean quicker decisions.

In one recent case, a major terrorism suspect linked to alleged plots to attack Manchester, New York, and targets in Norway, had his appeal against extradition to the US thrown out of the European Court at the earliest stage.

So when it comes to the delays and drama, we may never see another case as difficult as Abu Qatada's again.