A radical Muslim cleric described as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe" is to be released on bail in a matter of days despite accusations that he poses a grave threat to national security.
Abu Qatada, who has been imprisoned without charge for six-and-a-half years, will be subject to strict bail conditions that will confine him to his home for 22 hours a day as he fights deportation to his home country, Jordan.
The decision, made by a judge at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, comes as a blow to the Home Secretary, Theresa May. She had sought to ensure that Mr Qatada, described as "the most significant extremist preacher in the UK", was kept behind bars until a deal to deport him to his homeland could be hammered out.
But Mr Justice Mitting told the Commission yesterday that the restrictions on Mr Qatada's freedom could be lifted altogether if Ms May fails to demonstrate meaningful progress in negotiations with the Jordanian authorities within three months.
The Government is being forced to seek assurances that Jordan will not use evidence obtained by torture against Mr Qatada, after European Human Rights judges blocked his deportation last month, saying such abuses were used to gain testimony from a co-defendant in a terrorism case heard there.
Mr Qatada was convicted in absentia of involvement in two terrorist conspiracies to carry out bomb attacks. Judges sitting in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg said that evidence obtained by torture was regularly used in Jordanian courts and to allow that to happen in the case of Mr Qatada would represent a "flagrant denial of justice".
Lawyers for Mr Qatada argued that spending nine years' in detention without charge on the grounds of national security meant that their client had already served the "equivalent of a 17-year jail sentence". Ed Fitzgerald, QC, said: "The detention has now gone on for too long to be reasonable or lawful and there is no prospect of the detention ending in any reasonable period. However grave the risk of absconding, however grave the risk of further offending, there comes a point when it's just too long."
Despite agreeing with the Home Secretary that an "unusually long period of detention" was justified, the judge ruled that "the time will arrive quite soon when continuing detention or deprivation of liberty could not be".
Mr Qatada was released on bail for three months, with Mr Justice Mitting saying: "If by the end of that, the Secretary of State is not able to put before me evidence of demonstrable progress in negotiating sufficient assurances with the government of Jordan... it's very likely that I would consider that a continued deprivation of liberty is no longer justified."
The terms of the bail are similar to those imposed on Mr Qatada in 2008 and are subject to MI5 checks on his proposed address.
He will not be allowed to access the internet and will be electronically monitored by security services. All visitors will need to be pre-approved.
A Home Office spokesman criticised the decision to release him, saying: "This is a dangerous man who we believe poses a real threat to our security."