LONDON — A British court ruled Monday that an extremist cleric described as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida operatives should be released on bail.
After six years in custody, Abu Qatada could be freed within days for three months under stringent conditions, a judge at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in London said.
Abu Qatada, 51, has been fighting to be released after the European Court of Human Rights ruled last month he should not be deported to face terror charges in Jordan because of concerns that evidence obtained by torture would be used against him.
The British government wants to keep him in a high-security prison while continuing a legal fight to have him deported, arguing that he poses a serious threat to the country's security.
But Ed Fitzgerald, the lawyer representing Abu Qatada, told immigration Judge John Mitting that the cleric had been held for too long without charges in Britain.
"However the risk of absconding, however the risk of further offending, there comes a point when it's just too long," Fitzgerald said.
Mitting said Monday that Britain's Home Office has three months to show progress in negotiating with Jordan to seek assurances that evidence gained through torture would not be used against him in any retrial on his return.
But he added that he believed chances are slim that Britain can deport Abu Qatada in light of the European court's decision.
The judge said that if by the end of three months there is no progress in the talks, "it's very likely that I would consider that a continued deprivation of liberty is no longer justified."
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. He is reported to have had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
He has never faced criminal charges in Britain, but authorities in Britain have accused him of advising militants and raising money for terrorist attacks.
Mitting ruled that in the next three months, Abu Qatada will be bailed on strict conditions. Those conditions have not been formalized, but Britain's Home Office said it would press for the most stringent terms possible. It is likely that he would have to abide by a curfew and wear an electronic anklet.
In a statement, the Home Office added that it disagreed with Mitting's decision, and that it will continue to consider legal options against the European court's ruling. Britain has a three-month window to make a final appeal to the Strasbourg-based court.
A Palestinian-Jordanian citizen, Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in 1993 and was detained in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws that at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be held in jail without charge.
Although Abu Qatada was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, he was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months and held pending his deportation to face terrorism charges in Jordan.
He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and would face a retrial there if deported from Britain. The European rights court said in its ruling that the cleric will likely be denied a fair trial in Jordan.