Abu Qatada seeks bail hearing in legal battle

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Media captionAbu Qatada speaking on the BBC's Panorama in 2001

Radical cleric Abu Qatada is seeking bail after winning a critical ruling blocking his deportation from the UK.

The preacher could be freed from maximum security Long Lartin prison at the hearing on 6 February.

The European Court of Human Rights says that Abu Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan because he could be convicted on evidence obtained by torture.

The government is already holding urgent talks with Jordan over the cleric's possible treatment.

In its judgement earlier in January, the European Court said the UK had struck a sound deal with Jordan to guarantee the alleged extremist's human rights - but that the cleric could still be the victim of injustice if deported.

He has been convicted in his absence of terrorism offences and is likely to face trial if returned. He alleges that the co-defendants in the cases implicated him after they were tortured - meaning he could not face a fair trial.

The British government has three months to challenge the ruling before it becomes final.

The cleric has been imprisoned or held on strict curfew conditions for six and a half years.

At a hastily convened hearing at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, lawyers for Abu Qatada sought bail and a writ for habeas corpus, an ancient English law used to challenge unlawful detention.

Mr Justice Mitting said that the twin applications should be dealt with "speedily" because of the nature of the case.

Danny Friedman, for Abu Qatada, argued that the "best case scenario" for his client is that he could face another six-month-wait if the government appealed to the Grand Chamber, the Strasbourg court's highest body.

He said that so far Abu Qatada had been detained for two years and 10 months in prison, followed by six months on curfew - and then another three years and two months back in jail. Mr Friedman said that the preacher could face up to two more years in jail if the case dragged on.

Although the European Court of Human Right's judgement has blocked Abu Qatada's deportation for now, it has not ruled against his removal from the UK if the government can get a guarantee from Jordan that torture evidence will not be used in his case.

During the brief hearing, Robin Tam, for the home secretary, said discussions had already begun between the British Ambassador in Amman and Jordanian ministers.

Further discussions would be held next week, he said, and there was "a realistic prospect that an undertaking will emerge". This meant that there may not be further long delays in the case.

Mr Justice Mitting said that aside from the bail hearing, any application for habeas corpus "must be dealt with speedily".

"Six and a half years of detention requires eligibility for bail to be considered urgently," he said.

"I accept that it's possible that negotiations with the Jordanian government may produce a rapid solution but past experience... leads me to believe that is likely to be an unrealistic expectation."

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