May 9, 2012 5:29 pm

Court clears way for Qatada deportation

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Abu Qatada, the radical Jordanian cleric, has lost the right to pursue a further appeal on his deportation from the UK.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that his case would not be referred to its grand chamber.

A panel of five senior judges decided on Wednesday that they would not hear Abu Qatada’s appeal, based on his claim that he might be harmed or tortured if he were returned to Jordan, where he has been convicted twice in his absence on terrorism charges.

The decade-long battle to deport the cleric, once described by lawyers as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, has dogged successive home secretaries. It caused particular embarrassment to Theresa May after she launched a deportation order against Abu Qatada a day too early, giving him time to launch a counter-appeal to Strasbourg.

Although the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that Abu Qatada’s lawyers, rather than the Home Office, had judged the appeal date correctly, its decision not to take the case to the grand chamber will come as a relief to the department after a difficult few months that called into question its competence. Ms May can now begin the deportation process through the British courts in earnest but officials warn that it could be “months” before the terrorist suspect is on a flight out of Britain.

Abu Qatada’s lawyers have made an application for his release from his high-security prison during the UK legal process. Even if he remains in jail, he could still be in Britain during the Olympics – a situation that the government had hoped to avoid.

The home secretary said she was “pleased” by the ruling and emphasised that Jordan had agreed not to use evidence gained through torture in Abu Qatada’s trial.

“I remain confident that the assurances I have secured from the Jordanian government mean we will be able to put Qatada on a plane and get him out of Britain for good,” she said.

However, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said it was a “disappointing decision and a missed opportunity.

“The grand chamber would have been the right body to examine this appeal because it raises fundamental issues about whether ‘deportation deals’ with countries which routinely use torture should ever be relied on.’’

The objections raised by Strasbourg judges to the deportation have inflamed Conservative eurosceptic MPs, who frequently called on Ms May to defy the court and resist its “interference” in UK security.

But Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, endorsed the government position. “I’ve just been listening to various very important members of the Bar ... I think that their collective view is: [the deportation] could be a matter of days, it could be a matter of weeks, it could be a little while,” Mr Pickles said. “But I don’t think we should worry too much about the view in the country where the rule of law’s important.”

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, welcomed the news but said it was “shocking” that Ms May had got the date wrong, suggesting she had taken “an unacceptable risk with this serious case”.

She added: “We are all very lucky that the home secretary’s major mistake has not led to Qatada’s application for appeal being granted Now is the time for Theresa May to apologise for such a potentially catastrophic error of judgment and answer questions as to what led her to make this mistake and why she was adamant she was right.”

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