LONDON — An extremist cleric described as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida operatives should not be deported to face terrorism charges in Jordan because of the risk evidence obtained through torture would be used against him, Europe's highest court ruled Tuesday.
After a six-year legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that deporting Abu Qatada from Britain – where he is in prison – would "give rise to a flagrant denial of justice."
Abu Qatada – whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman – is an extremist Muslim preacher from Jordan who has been described in both Spanish and British courts as a leading al-Qaida figure in Europe.
A Palestinian-Jordanian citizen, Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in 1993 and was detained in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws which at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be held in jail without charge.
Though Abu Qatada was released in 2005, when the unpopular law was overturned, he was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months, to be held pending his deportation to face terrorism charges in Jordan.
He was convicted in his absence in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and would face a retrial if deported there from Britain.
Although Abu Qatada has never faced criminal charges in Britain, authorities in the U.K. have accused him of advising militants and raising money for terrorist attacks. He "is a leading spiritual adviser with extensive links to, and influence over, extreme Islamists in the U.K. and overseas," prosecutors told a British court in 2007.
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May said she was disappointed by the ruling and the government would consider appealing the European court's decision. It has a three-month window in which to make any appeal, the court said.
"This is not the end of the road," May said. She confirmed Abu Qatada would remain held in British prison custody while a decision is made.
May has not specified what Britain would do if it loses any appeal, though it is likely Abu Qatada would be freed from prison and monitored under a surveillance program which requires those suspected of involvement in terrorism, but not charged with any crime, to abide by a curfew and wear an electronic anklet.
Abu Qatada's lawyer, Gareth Peirce, said the European court had sent a clear message that it would be wrong to prosecute a suspect on "evidence emanating from torture."
Peirce said she hoped Britain would not appeal and that the U.K. had been wrong to press to have her client deported since 2005.
"The court's judgment of today is long, thoughtful and complex, and sets out important guidelines for Europe's member states on a number of difficult issues," she said. "It would indeed be disappointing if the implications of this judgment were not carefully and adequately digested and the United Kingdom were to continue a challenge which flies so directly in the face of internationally accepted standards."
Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission has previously been told Abu Qatada also was suspected of links to a bomb plot in Strasbourg, France, and to the raising of funds for terrorism in Chechnya.
In their ruling, the European judges based in Strasbourg said they did not accept Abu Qatada's claims that he would face ill treatment or torture at the hands of Jordanian authorities if sent there for trial, citing recent agreements between Jordan and the U.K.
But the judges warned that evidence in his case had been obtained by torturing his co-accused.
"The court found that torture was widespread in Jordan, as was the use of torture evidence by the Jordanian courts," the ruling said. "In relation to each of the two terrorist conspiracies ... the evidence of his involvement had been obtained by torturing one of his co-defendants."
Judges said evidence obtained through torture is illegal under international law and is also unreliable. The ruling said "there was a high probability that the incriminating evidence would be admitted ... and that it would be of considerable, perhaps decisive, importance."
Britain's highest court had ruled in 2009 that Abu Qatada should be deported to Jordan, despite fears over his potential mistreatment.
Human rights group Liberty urged the British government to make efforts to have Abu Qatada prosecuted in Britain.
"The court found that torture and evidence obtained that way is widespread" in Jordan, Shami Chakrabarti, the group's director, said in a statement. "So it is clear that, if Abu Qatada is to be tried for terrorism, this should happen in a British court without further delay."
British Prime Minister David Cameron will call for reform of the European court in a long-planned speech next week at the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe. He has frequently complained over the human rights court's rulings and said it had made him "physically ill" when Britain was ordered in 2010 to overturn a centuries-old law and allow prisoners to vote in national elections.
"We have been talking for some time about reform for the European Court of Human Rights," Cameron's spokesman Steve Field said following the Abu Qatada ruling. Field said the court's backlog of about 160,000 cases proved "something isn't working quite as it should be."
Cameron believes the court must focus on the most important cases "rather than essentially being a court of appeal for national judgments," the spokesman said.