Q&A: Abu Qatada and terrorism deportations

What has the European Court ruled?

Seven judges of the European Court of Human Rights – one of whom is British – have blocked the deportation of cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan. He has been convicted there in his absence of terrorism offences. The UK has been attempting to remove him since 2005. He is currently being held in a special unit at Long Lartin jail in Worcestershire.

Who is Abu Qatada?

His real name is Omar Othman and he is a Palestinian-Jordanian Islamic scholar who was born in Bethlehem. He came to the UK in 1993 and is among a large group of Islamists who fled from the Middle East to London as they faced persecution.

Abu Qatada is an influential supporter of mujahideen causes. He is accused of threatening British national security by supporting terrorism, something he denies. He has never been charged with an offence in the UK, but has been held in detention and had his movements restricted by a control order because he was suspected of playing a key role in radicalisation. The government has been trying to deport him since 2005.

Why did the European court block the deportation?

In their ruling, the judges said that while they were satisfied that the preacher would not face ill-treatment if deported, he could not face a probable retrial in Jordan because the key evidence against him was obtained by torturing others. It said that sending him back to Jordan would legitimise that state’s use of torture.

How important is this case?

This is the first time that the Strasbourg court has ruled that someone cannot be expelled because the torture of others would mean that they would be denied a fair trial.

Why did this case end up at the European Court?

The Court of Appeal in London originally blocked Abu Qatada’s deportation on broadly the same lines as those now used by Europe. But in 2009 the then Law Lords overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision and said that the deportation could go ahead.

The lords ruled that Abu Qatada’s rights would be protected if he were deported. Crucially, they ruled that while evidence against him may have been extracted by torture of another suspect, they had to decide whether a trial based on that material could be fair. They concluded there were no reasonable grounds for believing that the Jordanian courts could not offer a fair trial.

Is this decision final?

Not quite. Both sides have three months to appeal against the ruling to the Grand Chamber of the court – its highest decision-making body. If nobody appeals, it then becomes final. The court has made clear that if the UK obtained an assurance from Jordan that evidence obtained by torture would not be used against Abu Qatada at trial, there would be nothing to stop his deportation. British ministers and officials are now trying to strike a new deal with Jordan that would satisfy the court. However, Abu Qatada would still have the legal right to challenge anything new so nobody is quite clear when we will reach a final judgement in the case.

What happens if he can’t be deported?

At present he remains in detention. But if he is not facing a criminal charge, extradition proceedings or an attempt to deport, then he must be released from jail. The likely scenario is that his activities would be restricted by house arrest-style conditions. The alternatie extreme option is for the Home Secretary to ignore the European Court and deport him anyway. Italy has done this before – but opponents of this move say that it would be enormously damaging to the UK’s reputation.

Does this ruling mean the UK cannot deport any foreign terrorism suspects to regimes with questionable human rights records?

The government has signed deportation deals known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) with four governments – Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia and Morocco. There is a further separate agreement with Algeria to look at deportations on a case-by-case basis.

Each of these deals is supposedly a guarantee by the relevant government to protect the human rights of anyone who is deported and some 15 individuals are known to be facing deportation under MOUs.

The European Court has now accepted that the Jordan deal is not only sound but there have been “genuine efforts” to provide detailed assurances that Abu Qatada would not be ill-treated.

“The product of those efforts, the MOU, is superior in both its detail and its formality to any assurances which the Court has previously examined,” said the judgement. “The MOU would also appear to be superior to any assurances examined by the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The MOU is specific and comprehensive. It addresses directly the protection of the applicant’s Convention rights in Jordan.”

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