Abu Qatada: Evidence extremely thin, says appeal judge

Abu Qatada Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Home Office says Abu Qatada continues to pose a risk to national security

A judge reviewing the decision to deport Jordanian terror suspect Abu Qatada has said his links to an alleged bomb plot look to be "extremely thin".

Mr Justice Mitting's comments came as the preacher began what may be the last appeal in his seven-year legal battle.

The judge said the "only evidence" of a link was that Abu Qatada had paid $5,000 (£3,100) for a computer.

Lawyers for the home secretary claim Abu Qatada is "scraping the barrel" in his attempts to avoid deportation.

The UK says he is a threat to security but his lawyers question Jordanian assurances over torture evidence.

They are challenging home secretary Theresa May's decision to order his deportation at the hearing, which is expected to last eight days.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) is a semi-secret court that deals with national security deportations where some of the sensitive material cannot be disclosed in public.

It will hear from Anthony Layden, a former British ambassador to Libya who specialises in negotiating diplomatic assurances, and a Jordanian lawyer who advises UK diplomats on Thursday.

He will describe how the Jordanian authorities have "given all possible assistance" in detailing what procedures would be followed to give Abu Qatada a fair trial.

'Serious problems'

Abu Qatada, who is not attending the hearing in central London, has been accused of involvement in a plot to cause explosions on western and Israeli targets in Jordan to coincide with the millennium celebrations.

He has been found guilty by a court in his absence but if returned to Jordan the conviction will be set aside so a retrial can take place.

Reviewing legal documents, Mr Justice Mitting said they suggested the alleged co-conspirator - who has claimed he had been tortured before giving evidence - had been given the money by Abu Qatada.

"If that's the only evidence in the case... it's difficult to understand on what basis the appellant [Abu Qatada] could be prosecuted," said the judge at Siac.

Danny Friedman, representing Abu Qatada, agreed and said there were "very serious problems" with the case.

He added that witnesses did not give statements voluntarily and were "threatened with torture" while in detention.

But a document submitted to the court by lawyers for Mrs May claim Abu Qatada has "failed to demonstrate" that his removal to Jordan would amount to a "flagrant denial of justice".

Written by Robin Tam QC and two other barristers representing Mrs May, the document made clear that civilian judges will preside over Abu Qatada's re-trial and not members of the military.

It also confirmed that new laws in Jordan will exclude evidence that might have been obtained by torturing Abu Qatada's alleged co-conspirators and said his appeal "bears all the hallmarks of a last ditch argument".

Mr Tam said: "As a matter of Jordanian law, the previous statements made by [alleged co-conspirators] Al-Hamasher and Abu Hawsher will not form part of the evidence which is considered by the court in the retrial of the appellant.

"The two men will be called to give fresh evidence, and if they do so, will be able to give their evidence freely and without fear of reprisal."

Abu Qatada is considered to be one of the most influential supporters of violent jihad in Europe.

The Palestinian-born Jordanian preacher has been described as the spiritual leader of the mujihadeen and security chiefs say that he played a key ideological role in spreading support for suicide bombings.

He has been subject to lengthy periods of detention since 2001 although he has never been charged with a crime in the UK.

Last week, in an unrelated case, the government completed the extradition of the cleric Abu Hamza to the US.

In January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the preacher would not face ill-treatment if returned to Jordan. The Strasbourg judges said that a special UK-Jordan agreement over Abu Qatada's treatment, called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), was sound and met European standards of humane treatment.

But the judges said they did not believe he would get a fair trial because a Jordanian court could use evidence against Abu Qatada that had been obtained from the torture of others.

Home secretary Theresa May has since negotiated a new MOU, covering how Abu Qatada will be tried and these assurances are expected to be at the heart of his appeal.

His legal team are also expected to argue that political turmoil in Jordan means that the UK government can offer no guarantees as to how the detainee would be treated.

In May, Abu Qatada lost an appeal against his detention after a judge said it was too risky to let him out of jail because MI5 and the police had to devote their resources to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Mr Justice Mitting then said the length of time the preacher had been detained was "extraordinary" and "hardly, if at all, acceptable" - but the delays had been caused by the courts taking a "remarkably long time" to deal with the case.

But he added that detention was lawful given that Siac aimed to give its final ruling on the case within a month of start of the current hearing.

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