Abu Qatada appeal blocks deportation


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Terror suspect Abu Qatada today lodged an appeal with Europe's human rights judges which effectively blocks the Government's attempts to deport him to Jordan, officials said.

Qatada's legal team claims that judges at the European Court of Human Rights were wrong three months ago when they ruled that he would not be at risk of torture if returned to Jordan, a court spokeswoman said.

The court's Grand Chamber will decide whether to hear his appeal, but the radical cleric, once described by a judge as Osama bin Laden's right hand man in Europe, cannot be deported until the court has reached a decision.

The move is separate from any appeal Qatada's legal team may make over yesterday's decision by Home Secretary Theresa May to continue with his deportation after receiving assurances from Jordan that evidence gained through torture would not be used against him.

Instead it relates to a different strand of the original decision of the Strasbourg-based court which found that the 51-year-old would not face being tortured himself if deported.

Under the rules of the court, all parties have three months in which to appeal to the court's Grand Chamber before the decision becomes final.

But the Home Office said Qatada ran out of time to appeal on Monday night, just hours before he was arrested by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers, and his case should be dismissed.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday night.

"His case should be heard in British courts, as the Home Secretary outlined to Parliament yesterday. In the meantime, he remains in custody."

A court spokeswoman said the Grand Chamber would now "soon" decide whether to hear Qatada's appeal. Very few Grand Chamber appeals are successful.

The move comes as the 47 member nations of the Council of Europe prepare to meet in Brighton tomorrow for talks aimed at reforming the court and the types of cases it hears.

Qatada's legal team are challenging the Strasbourg-based court's decision, published on January 17, that he could be sent back to Jordan with diplomatic assurances that he would not be tortured.

He is currently behind bars after a senior immigration judge ruled his imminent deportation meant the risk he could try to flee while on bail had increased.

But his lawyers have said they will challenge all moves to deport him and Mrs May warned MPs yesterday that it may still be "many months" before Qatada can be lawfully kicked out.

Qatada, who is said to have "wide and high-level support" among extremists, was convicted in his absence in Jordan of involvement with terror attacks in 1998 and now faces a retrial in his home country.

He also featured in hate sermons found on videos in the flat of one of the September 11 bombers.

Since 2001, when fears of the domestic terror threat rose in the aftermath of the attacks, he has challenged, and ultimately thwarted, every attempt by the Government to detain and deport him.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "As far as we are concerned, Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber, since the three-month deadline lapsed at midnight on Monday night.

"The ruling was made on January 17 and therefore the deadline for referral was midnight on April 16.

"He is in custody now. We are opposing the referral and we believe the case should be heard in British courts.

"If his lawyers appeal for bail, we will oppose it vigorously."

The spokeswoman was unable to say when the Grand Chamber's decision on whether it will hear the Qatada case will be made.

Ms May described Qatada's application to the European court as a "delaying tactic" prompted by his awareness of the strength of the case for his deportation set out by the Government at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) hearing yesterday.

She rejected suggestions that the Home Office may have blundered in its calculation of when the deadline for an appeal would come, and said there "no question" of the Government having broken the law by arresting Qatada yesterday.

The treaty governing the European court states that referrals must be made within three months of a judgment, and court officials were "absolutely clear" that the UK was working on the basis that in Qatada's case this expired at midnight on April 16, said the Home Secretary.

However, the application was not automatically struck out if it was received after the deadline and it was now for the Grand Chamber to decide whether the court should hear it.

Mrs May told BBC News channel: "This is a delaying tactic from Abu Qatada. It is a delaying tactic which he chose to use only after he had seen the strength of the Government's case in the SIAC court yesterday.

"The decision as to whether or not Abu Qatada remains in prison will be one that will be taken by the UK courts, if he chooses to apply for bail. Obviously, if he does, we will oppose that bail vigorously, as we did yesterday - we argued for his detention yesterday - and as we have done in the past.

"I want to see Abu Qatada deported. I am absolutely clear that once we have got through this, we will resume those deportation proceedings.

"I want Abu Qatada to be on a plane to Jordan and I know that that is what the British public want. What the Government is absolutely focused on is making sure we can deport Abu Qatada."

Asked whether the Home Office may have got its timing wrong, Mrs May said: "I am sure that we got the deadline right, because you look at the treaty and what the treaty says is that it is three months from the date of the judgment.

"As you would expect, 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 the final decision is always taken by the panel (of the Grand Chamber)."

More to follow...