Abu Qatada not guilty of terror plot

Radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada has been found not guilty of terrorism offences by a court in Jordan, over an alleged plot in 1998.

A panel of civilian judges sitting at the State Security Court in Amman cleared him of conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts.

Abu Qatada was deported from the UK in July 2013. A verdict on another alleged plot was adjourned until September.

The Home Office said Abu Qatada would not be able to return to Britain.

Torture evidence

This verdict comes after a near decade-long legal battle to force the radical cleric to face trial in his home country, and will raise concerns that he may use his influence to destabilise the Jordanian state at a time of increasing turmoil on its borders.

Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Othman, was granted asylum in the UK in 1994 but the security service MI5 increasingly saw him as a national security threat as his views on jihad hardened.

He was accused of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts following a series of bombings, including of a hotel, in Jordan in 1998 and a foiled plot to carry out attacks on civilians in Jordan to mark the millennium.

He was convicted in his absence but the convictions were eventually thrown out because they had been based on evidence which may have been acquired by torturing Abu Qatada’s co-defendants.

A treaty signed last year by Jordan and the UK banned the use of such evidence from trials in Jordan, removing the final obstacle to deporting the man described by British judges as a “truly dangerous individual”.

Abu Qatada in court
Abu Qatada was tried by a panel of civilian judges

When he was deported from the UK in July 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May said she had been “as frustrated as the public” about the estimated £1.7m cost and length of time it had taken to remove him.

The cleric had fought his deportation since 2005.

Home Office minister James Brokenshire said: “Abu Qatada’s re-trial in Jordan has been made possible thanks to this government’s determination to successfully deport him from the UK.

“While the courts in Jordan have acquitted [Abu] Qatada of one of the two charges against him, it is right the due process of law is allowed to take place in his own country. We await a verdict on the remaining charge.”

Mr Brokenshire also said Abu Qatada is subject to a deportation order which means he will be unable to return to the UK. He is also subject to a UN travel ban.

Following the preacher’s acquittal, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told LBC radio: “It was important that we sent Abu Qatada, after lengthy delay, back to Jordan to face trial”.

“Start Quote

He’s the star of the jihadist world so his writings, lectures and sermons are all taken very seriously”

Laith AlkhouriExtremist content analyst

“What is absolutely clear to me is that this man needed to face justice and needed to do so out of the UK.”

When asked if Abu Qatada could return to Britain, Mr Clegg said: ‘We don’t want this man back” and added that the government would do “everything it could do to prevent that happening”.

Chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, said he was surprised at the verdict. “However, it is right that the Jordanian court has followed due process,” he added. “There are still matters outstanding which need to be resolved.”

“The British government was right to remove this man from the UK considering his extremist views and potential links to terrorism.”

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, said: “Based on everything that we know, the Jordanian government will go to great lengths to keep Abu Qatada in prison, so I don’t think the question of him coming to the UK is a real possibility at this particular point.”

Agreement ‘betrayal’

The trial was conducted at the controversial State Security Court which is housed in a military base in Marka, a suburb in the capital Amman.

At an appearance in December, Abu Qatada complained about the presence of a military judge on the panel as a “betrayal of the agreement” under which he was deported.

This had specified that he must be tried by civilian judges. The make up of the tribunal was subsequently changed.

During the trial Abu Qatada reportedly spoke out about the conflict in neighbouring Syria, urging the two main jihadist factions there, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), to unite behind the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Abu Qatada
Abu Qatada was flown to Jordan from London after his deportation was approved

The BBC’s Steve Swann, reporting from the trial in Amman, says that despite such outbursts, there was little to link Abu Qatada to the two terror plots in this case once the torture evidence was discounted.

A British judge had referred to this as “an extremely thin case” and this has now been proved, our correspondent added.

Smuggled writing

The BBC has seen evidence which suggests Abu Qatada has smuggled out messages and writings from his cell in the high security Muwaqqer prison to his supporters across the world.

Laith Alkhouri, senior analyst with Flashpoint Partners, monitors extremist content online from an office in New York. He has found numerous postings on the internet which claim to be in Abu Qatada’s name.

In one, the cleric is alleged to have contacted al-Zawahiri to condemn Isis.

In a letter published by the al-Nusra Front in April the cleric denounced Isis as “the dogs of hellfire… because of their evil actions”.

Elsewhere, he has written in praise of jihad as a tool for overthrowing tyrannical leaders of the Muslim world.

Mr Alkhouri told the BBC: “He’s the star of the jihadist world so his writings, lectures and sermons are all taken very seriously. Every single word is taken very seriously by jihadists.”

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