Euro Courts Blasted Over Al-Qaida Suspect's Release

Britons are in an uproar over a judge's decision to release a Muslim preacher suspected of al-Qaida links. The British government wanted to deport him to Jordan, where he's been convicted of terrorism charges, but European courts won't allow that because the convictions were based on evidence obtained by torture. NPR's Phil Reeves tells host Scott Simon that the case has stirred up resentment.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Abu Qatada is a radical Islamic cleric. The British government says he's a very dangerous man who's wanted on terrorism charges in Algeria, the U.S. and six European nations, including Britain. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Abu Qatada is not wanted on terrorism charges in Britain.] They've kept him in prison for years yet now, he's about to be released because of the ruling of a European court.

The case is causing a furor in Britain, not least because it has to do with Britain's national sovereignty. The European court has stopped the British from kicking Abu Qatada out of the U.K. and deporting him to Jordan, his home country, to stand trial there. NPR's Philip Reeves has been following the case and joins us from London. Phil, thanks for being with us.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: And help us understand, who is Abu Qatada?

REEVES: Well, he's a 51-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian, born in Bethlehem in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank; has Jordanian citizenship. The British government says that he's got a longstanding association with al-Qaida, that he's highly influential, and uses religion to justify terrorism. For the last 10 years - off and on - Qatada's been in prison here, but he's never been charged with any offense in this country.

SIMON: So that's why he hasn't stood trial?

REEVES: That's right. I mean, a former government minister in charge of Qatada's file says that the evidence against him can't be produced in an open court because this would compromise the sources of Britain's security services. However, Qatada has made inflammatory sermons over the years. Officials say that recordings of these have turned up among the belongings of people who've committed attacks. So human rights activists are asking why hasn't he been tried here in Britain for incitement to murder - which is a very, very serious offense.

SIMON: And why would the British government want to send him to Jordan?

REEVES: Well, because he's been convicted there already, in absentia, for being involved in several terrorist offenses, including the bombing of the American School in Amman in 1998. If he goes back there, he'll get a retrial. The trouble is - it's common knowledge - that the Jordanian security services use torture. So the British got assurances from the Jordanian government, saying that Qatada would not be mistreated. His case went to Britain's House of Lords, which was happy with these assurances and agreed that he could be deported. So Qatada went to the European Court of Human Rights.

SIMON: And help us understand their decision. What did they say?

REEVES: Well, the court actually accepted those assurances from the Jordanians that Qatada wouldn't be tortured. But the European Court of Human Rights raised another problem. It decided that there's a risk that Qatada will be convicted on evidence obtained from other people - from witnesses - by using torture, violating his right to a fair trial. It therefore blocked his deportation. The British government's furious about this. This case is hardening anti-European sentiments in Britain, particularly within the growing army of euro skeptics in the conservative party. Some of them are calling on Britain just to ignore the European courts, and put Qatada on a plane to Jordan anyway. And people got even angrier when a British immigration panel then decided that Qatada should be released on bail.

SIMON: And is that's what's going to happen? Is Abu Qatada going to walk out of prison someday soon, and be free to pick up a life and wander the streets?

REEVES: Yeah. We don't know when. I've just, in fact, spoken with the Home Office here, who say that a couple of days ago, they said it would take a couple of days for him to be bailed. And they're saying no more than that. But the bail conditions are very stringent: no Internet, no phones, no visitors without approval. In the couple of hours where he can actually go outside his home, he can't go beyond a certain agreed area; he can't go to the mosque and lead prayers there.

These conditions are a lot tougher than most prisons. The issue, though, is what happens if they're eventually lifted and he's really at liberty. Already, one of the British tabloid papers is running a campaign called, Let's Try Harder To Kick Out Qatada. And you can imagine that the volume of these kind of media protests will grow much louder once he's genuinely free. But we don't know when that will be, if that will be. And we don't yet know whether the British government will eventually succeed in their efforts to get him deported.

SIMON: NPR's Philip Reeves in London. Thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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Correction Feb. 16, 2012

Our introduction to this story incorrectly includes Britain among the nations in which Abu Qatada is wanted on terrorism charges.

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