LONDON — An extremist cleric described as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida operatives should not be deported to Jordan to face trial 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 custody — 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.
While living in Britain, he was convicted in his absence in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots.
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 advisor 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 the U.K. would consider appealing the European court's decision. It has a three-month window in which to make any appeal, the court said.
"I am disappointed that the court has made this ruling," May said in a statement. "This is not the end of the road, and we will now consider all the legal options available to us."
Abu Qatada will remain held in British prison custody while a decision is made, she said.
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 terorrism — but not charged with any crime — to abide by a curfew and wear an electronic anklet.
Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission has previously been told Abu Qatada was also 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 was illegal under international law and was 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."