LONDON — Britain's attorney general said Tuesday he understands why the government is angry about a court's decision to release an extremist cleric described as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida operatives on bail but that authorities must follow the rule of law with everyone.
Britain's Home Office had wanted cleric Abu Qatada to remain in prison while he fights a legal battle to avoid extradition to Jordan to face terror charges, but a judge at Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal granted him bail this week.
Abu Qatada has been imprisoned in Britain for more than six years without ever being charged with a crime here, but he was convicted in absentia in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and he would be expected to face a retrial there if deported from Britain.
Attorney General Dominic Grieve told the BBC that he understood the government is "obviously very concerned" about the radical cleric but said people cannot be imprisoned indefinitely without trial.
"We obviously don't have indefinite internment without trial in this country," he said. "Individuals enjoy the right to liberty and government is bound by the rule of law and has to observe it."
He added: "The government is obviously very concerned about this case and very much wishes to see Abu Qatada deported to Jordan and, when he is in Jordan, tried fairly if the Jordanian authorities wish to put him on trial."
Abu Qatada's case has pitched British and European courts against Britain's Home Office, which has said repeatedly that it believes Abu Qatada is a threat to national security and should remain in prison while in Britain.
Home Secretary Theresa May's attempts to deport him were set back last month when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that he should not be deported because of the risk evidence obtained through torture would be used against him. Britain now has a three-month window to make a final appeal to the Strasbourg-based court.
Many British newspapers Tuesday supported the government and voiced anger about Abu Qatada's impending release.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper said the case "epitomizes the waning power of the British state to decide who can and cannot remain in this country," while the Daily Mail said the ruling meant there would be a "terrorist on the school run," referring to the fact that Abu Qatada would be allowed to walk his children to school.
Abu Qatada — whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman — has never faced criminal charges in Britain, but authorities in Britain have accused him of advising militants and raising money for terrorist attacks. He 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 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.