The Associated Press
AMMAN, Jordan —
A radical Muslim preacher described as a key al-Qaida operative in Europe rejected terrorism charges Sunday linked to alleged plots targeting Americans and Israelis in Jordan, his lawyer said, hours after Britain deported him to bring an end to a decade-long legal saga over his extradition.
Jordan first submitted an extradition request to U.K. authorities for the militant cleric known as Abu Qatada in 2001, but it was blocked in British and European courts over human rights concerns. Last month, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture aimed at easing those worries, paving the way for the 53-year-old preacher’s deportation.
Abu Qatada arrived at Amman’s civilian airport early Sunday on board a British aircraft and was immediately whisked away by heavily armed anti-terrorism police for questioning at a nearby courthouse. Police sealed off the area as the convoy drove against traffic to the court building, just across the street from the airport. Armed policemen kept a crush of journalists at bay.
After nearly two hours of questioning, Jordanian prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiring to carry out terror attacks in Jordan twice — once in 1999 for a foiled plot against the American school in Amman and another time in 2000 for allegedly targeting Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during new year celebrations.
In both cases, Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia years ago and sentenced to life in prison. With his return, those sentences have been suspended and he will receive a new trial.
Abu Qatada’s lawyer, Tayseer Thiab, said his client “told military prosecutors that he is not guilty of terrorism and rejected the charges against him.”
Jordanian authorities ordered Abu Qatada held for 15 days pending further questioning, according to one of the prosecutors. He said the cleric will be held at Muwaqar I, a prison in Amman’s southeastern industrial suburb of Sahab. The military district attorney banned the publication of the prosecutors’ names.
Thiab said he will try to free his client on bail Monday.
Outside the courthouse, Abu Qatada’s father, Mahmoud, told the Associated press that his “son is innocent and I hope the court will set him free.”
The cleric’s younger brother, Ibrahim, said he and his father met with Abu Qatada for 15 minutes in the prosecutor’s office and that his brother “looked well and in high spirits.” He said the three prayed together and that the cleric “kissed my dad’s hands and feet when he saw him.” He told them British and Jordanian authorities had not used hand cuffs.
“How do you think I felt seeing my brother after 22 years?” Ibrahim said. “Look at my eyes and you’ll know the answer.”
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
Britain accused him of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric’s sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Abu Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum in the U.K. a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities, which allegedly included raising funds to finance terror plots in Jordan.
British authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him a year later under anti-terrorism laws, which at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be jailed without charge. Though he was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, the cleric was kept under close surveillance and detained in various ways.
He most recently was being held at London’s Belmarsh prison after breaching a bail condition in March which restricted the use of mobile phones and communication devices.
In London, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced Abu Qatada’s departure Sunday in a statement, and expressed confidence that the U.K. public would welcome the end to the saga.
“This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country,” she said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his “delight” at Abu Qatada’s deportation, which he called “a priority” for his government.
Britain’s original efforts to deport Abu Qatada were blocked by courts over concerns that evidence obtained under torture could be used against him. After years of successfully fighting the numerous attempts to expel him from the U.K., Abu Qatada recently indicated he would voluntarily return to Jordan if it and Britain ratified a treaty on torture.
That treaty — which explicitly bans the use of evidence “where there are serious and credible allegations that a statement from a person has been obtained by torture or ill-treatment” — was ratified by Britain and Jordan last month, clearing the final hurdle for his deportation.
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed Momani said the kingdom “is keen on credibility and transparency” in handling Abu Qatada’s case. He also said the cleric’s deportation “sends a message to all fugitives that they will face justice in Jordan.”