Militant Islamic Preacher Freed on Bail in Britain

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LONDON -- A militant Islamic preacher wanted in Jordan to face terrorism charges, who is depicted by British officials as a top operative of Al Qaeda, was released on bail on 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 that sending Mr. Othman to Jordan would violate his right to a fair trial under European human rights law.

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 news reports on Tuesday said the bail conditions included a 16-hour curfew, electronic tagging, a ban on Internet use and prohibitions on meeting some people. There was no public mention of financial conditions.

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

Keith Vaz, a Labour politician who is the head of Parliament's home affairs committee, told the BBC that legal efforts over the past seven years to deport Mr. Othman had cost taxpayers £1 million, the equivalent of $1.6 million.

"At the moment, it looks pretty farcical that a very dangerous man is now put on bail having gone through the court system for seven years and having cost the taxpayer £1 million," he said.

"What we need to do is study the judgment carefully and to try to persuade the Jordanians to do the only thing that the courts wanted them to, which is to strengthen the Jordanian criminal code," Mr. Vaz said.

The ruling by the tribunal 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's, his lawyers portray his case as testing the bounds of British justice.

Mr. Othman's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, said it was "important to reaffirm this country's position that we abhor the use of torture, and a case that was predicated upon evidence from witnesses who have been tortured is rejected -- rejected by the courts of this country, as by the European Court."

"It is important to emphasize the fundamental rules of law that we subscribe to. To that extent, it is important for other cases, not just for this case," she said.

Mr. Othman initially won the right to remain in Britain in 1993 when he sought asylum, claiming that he had been tortured in Jordan.

A father of five, he has subsequently been sought by the authorities in nine countries, including the United States. Tapes of his sermons were found in the apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers involved in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Britain's Home Office said.

British officials had been hoping that the deportation of Mr. Othman would reinforce what they said was a major success in October when five terrorism suspects, including the fiery Islamic preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, were sent to the United States to face an array of terrorism charges.

Their extradition came after a British court ruled they had exhausted their final appeal, ending years of legal battles that tested the balance between civil liberties and national security.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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