The decade-long legal battle over Abu Qatada's fate turned to farce last night as Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was accused of a basic blunder in moves to deport the radical preacher to Jordan to face terror charges.
As the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) halted the latest moves to remove him from Britain, the Home Office clashed with the Strasbourg-based court over when a deadline ran out for the cleric to appeal against his deportation. The bizarre wrangling will prompt a further delay to the saga. It forced Ms May to tour television studios insisting that her interpretation of the ECHR's legal fine print was correct and to deny she had broken the law by ordering Abu Qatada's arrest.
The result of the appeal is that his deportation will be delayed for several months until the ECHR's judges decide whether the case should be referred back to the court's Grand Chamber.
Lawyers for Abu Qatada, who is back behind bars, could also argue that he should be released again on bail while he waits for his appeal to be heard. After a month of torrid headlines for the Coalition, Labour claimed the episode was fresh evidence of "shambles and confusion" at the heart of government.
Following an ECHR judgment on 17 January, Abu Qatada's legal team was given a three-month deadline to challenge the court's ruling that he would not be at risk of torture if he returned to Jordan. Over that period, Ms May obtained new assurances from the Jordanian government that he would not face trial on evidence obtained through torture – the grounds on which the ECHR blocked a previous attempt at deportation.
Ms May ordered the arrest of Abu Qatada, once described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, early on Tuesday and started a fresh attempt to remove him. But his lawyers launched an appeal late on Tuesday – and the ECHR intervened again to halt his removal.
The confusion arose over whether the deadline ran out at the beginning or end of 17 April and the ECHR's own guidelines are not explicit on the point. They say: "It is to be noted that the period of three months within which referral may be requested starts to run on the date of the delivery of the judgment."
The deadline was not affected by the fact that 2012 is a leap year.
The Home Office said its lawyers had been advised by the ECHR that the deadline ran out at midnight on 16 April. Sources in the court said it expired at midnight on 17 April.
The appeal relates to whether Abu Qatada himself could be tortured in Jordan – and not the separate issue of his facing trial using evidence acquired through torture.
Ms May said last night: "There is no question that we have broken the law in arresting Abu Qatada. I am absolutely sure we got the deadline date correct."
She accused his legal team of delaying tactics and added: "We have been in touch with the European court over the last three months to check our understanding. They were absolutely clear that we were operating on the basis that it was midnight on April 16."
But Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Home Secretary needs to urgently come back to Parliament to tell the public what on earth has happened here.
"The Home Office are saying one thing, the European Court another. Why didn't they just agree the deadline in advance so there could be no opportunity for Abu Qatada or his lawyers to exploit?"
The Labour MP Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said the deportation was becoming "chaotic and almost farcical".
Mr Vaz said: "It's very important [Ms May] should clarify this as soon as possible by making a statement to the House after she knows what the facts are."
The latest twist will enrage Conservative MPs who have been pressing for the Government to ignore the ECHR and press ahead with the deportation.
The dispute broke out as the 47 members of the Council of Europe meet in Brighton today to discuss reforms to the ECHR championed by Britain. They are designed to ensure it intervenes less in decisions that can be settled by domestic courts.