Militant Islamic preacher freed on bail

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LONDON -- A militant Islamic preacher who is wanted in Jordan to face terrorism charges and who is depicted by British officials as a top operative of al-Qaida was released on bail Tuesday after winning the latest in seven years of legal battles that have been portrayed by his lawyers as crucial tests of British justice.

Heavily bearded and wearing a black turban, the preacher, Abu Qatada, 52, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, appeared to be smiling as he left the Long Lartin maximum-security prison in Worcestershire in the back of a black Volkswagen minibus. When he arrived outside his London home, a small group of protesters chanted "Out, out, out," witnesses said.

His release came a day after an immigration appeals tribunal ruled Monday that sending Mr. Othman to Jordan would violate his right to a fair trial under European human rights law. British news reports Tuesday said the bail conditions included a 16-hour curfew, electronic tagging, a ban on Internet use and prohibitions on meeting certain people.

The ruling was a blow to the British government, which wants to rid the country of foreign-born militants it says are fomenting Islamic militancy. British authorities have been seeking to deport him for years, but their efforts were blocked by the European Court of Human Rights over concerns that evidence obtained from others under torture might be used against him in Jordan.

The preacher, who is of Palestinian descent, was convicted in absentia of involvement in two bombing plots in Jordan in 1999 and 2000, and faces a retrial if returned home.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the government would appeal Monday's ruling. "Qatada is a dangerous man," she said. "The government has been doing everything it can to get rid of Abu Qatada, and we will continue to do so."

But an appeal can be made only on a point of law, legal experts said, and government lawyers must first work out a strategy to proceed.

Labour politician Keith Vaz, who heads Parliament's home affairs committee, told the BBC that legal efforts over the past seven years to deport Mr. Othman had cost taxpayers a million pounds, the equivalent of $1.6 million.

The tribunal's ruling said the judges were not satisfied that "there is no real risk" that statements made earlier by witnesses under duress would not be used at a retrial.

While many newspapers and politicians depict Mr. Othman as a terrorist and henchman of Osama bin Laden, his lawyers portray his case as testing the bounds of British justice.



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