UK keeps tight grip on extremist cleric with al Qa'eda links

An extremist cleric, once described by a judge as Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe", is facing indefinite imprisonment in Britain.

Powered by automated translation

LONDON // An extremist cleric, once described by a judge as Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe", is facing indefinite imprisonment in Britain. Abu Qatada, who has been on bail recently amid the UK government's continuing efforts to deport him to his native Jordan, will appear in court today accused of planning to flee to Lebanon, even though he has no passport.

Qatada, 47, who arrived in Britain 15 years ago on a forged UAE passport, has already been convicted in absentia in Jordan for his role in plotting a bombing campaign against tourists in 1998. A British judge blocked his extradition to Jordan this year and ordered his release from prison on strict bail conditions, including that he wear an electronic tag, not attend a mosque and remain in his home in west London for 22 hours a day.

The judge ruled out the deportation because he said that he could not be sure that Qatada would not be tortured if sent back to Jordan. The British government is appealing the judge's rejection of the extradition on the grounds that it has obtained guarantees from the Jordanians that Qatada will not be tortured. On Saturday, Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, ordered that Qatada be arrested after the UK Border Agency uncovered evidence that the father of five was planning to surreptitiously slip out of the country and seek refuge in Lebanon.

Qatada, held in Belmarsh Prison, a high security centre in south London, will appear before a judge presiding over a special immigration appeals commission hearing, accused of breaching his bail conditions. The government wants him to be kept in prison for as long as it takes for his extradition case to be resolved, labelling him a threat to national security. Although Qatada has always publicly distanced himself from al Qa'eda and says that he has never met bin Laden, tapes of his radical sermons were found in a Hamburg flat used by some of those involved in the September 11 attacks.

Richard Reid, a British convert to Islam who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner with a shoe bomb, and Zacarias Moussaoui, serving a life sentence in the United States for his role in the September 11 plot, both consulted Qatada on aspects of their religious beliefs. Arrest warrants accusing him of involvement in terrorism have also been issued in Algeria, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and the United States.

Qatada was granted asylum in Britain in 1994. Five years later, he made a speech advocating the killing of Jews and attacks on the United States. Despite finding a haven in Britain, he also stated that there was no difference between the English, Jews and US citizens. Early in 2001, he was questioned by anti-terrorism police regarding alleged connections to a German terrorism cell. Officers found £170,000 (Dh986,000) in cash in his home, including £805 in an envelope marked "For the Mujahideen in Chechnya", but no charges were brought.

He went on the run later that year to avoid detention under new restrictions brought in after September 11, but was detained in Oct 2002 after being tracked down to a council-owned house in south London. Qatada was locked up under emergency anti-terrorism legislation. He "was considered too dangerous to live at liberty, too difficult to prosecute and too much at risk of torture or execution to be extradited to Jordan", commented The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Although he was freed on strict conditions in March 2005, he was taken back into custody five months later at the start of proceedings to extradite him to Jordan after the government in Amman had given assurances that Qatada would not be tortured or face the death penalty. Justice Lawrence Collins, who chaired an immigration appeal tribunal hearing into Qatada's case, said he believed that the cleric was at the centre of al Qa'eda-linked terrorist activity in Britain.

"He is a truly dangerous individual," the judge said. "We have no doubt that his beliefs are extreme and are, indeed, a perversion of Islam for the purposes of encouraging violence against non-Muslims and Muslims who are or have been supportive of Americans." In an interview with CNN, Qatada said that although he had never met bin Laden he would have been proud to have done so. He claimed that he belonged to no organisation but said there was nothing to stop "anyone who belongs to al Qa'eda or any other organisation listening to me, asking my opinion or learning from me".

Qatada's bail conditions are intended to prevent any contact with terrorists. He cannot use computers or mobile phones, even the two hours that he is allowed out of his home are split into one-hour segments to prevent him travelling too far. Named individuals he is barred from contacting include bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy. The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, commented yesterday: "Since this whole episode is the consequence of trying to eject him from the country, why are we stopping him trying to leave? Once he has gone, he could be refused permission to come back.

"Now it is being suggested he will be returned to prison, at taxpayers' expense, for breaching his bail conditions. This is madness. "Surely, we should be buying him his ticket - one way only."