(photo credit: REUTERS/Neil Hall)
LONDON - The British government on Wednesday lost the latest round of its legal battle to deport radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, whom it calls a security risk and may have provided spiritual inspiration to 9/11 hijackers.
The ruling comes at a bad time for Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May, who in the past week have promised to get tough on immigration and ramp up efforts to deport foreigners in Britain illegally.
Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe", has been in and out of jail since first being arrested in 2001 and is wanted in his native Jordan where he was convicted of terrorism charges in 1999.
His sermons were found in a Hamburg flat used by some of those involved in the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Attempts to extradite him have been hampered by concerns evidence to be used in an expected retrial in Jordan may have been obtained through torture, making his deportation illegal under European law.
May's legal team have argued he is a "truly dangerous" individual who has escaped expulsion only through errors of law, and appealed a decision by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in November blocking his deportation.
But at the Court of Appeal, three judges unanimously rejected the government's argument.
"The court recognizes that (Abu Qatada) is regarded as a very dangerous person but emphasizes that this is not a relevant consideration under the applicable Convention law," the court said, referring to the European Convention on Human Rights.
"SIAC was entitled to conclude that there is a real risk that the impugned statements will be admitted in evidence at a retrial and that, in consequence, there is a real risk of a flagrant denial of justice," the court added.
The Home Office, which has sought diplomatic assurances form Jordan to ensure he would receive a fair trial there, said it would continue its fight to get him deported.
"This is not the end of the road, and the government remains determined to deport Abu Qatada," it said in a statement.
"We will consider this judgment carefully and plan to seek leave to appeal. In the meantime we continue to work with the Jordanians to address the outstanding legal issues preventing deportation," the statement said.
Qatada was sent back to jail earlier this month for breaching bail conditions prohibiting the use of mobile phones and other communications equipment in his house.
The fresh blow to the government's efforts to get rid of Qatada could add to pressure on Cameron from within his restive Conservative Party and from Britain's increasingly eurosceptic public to withdraw from European legal treaties.
The unemployed cleric has also become a symbol of alleged immigration policy failures in Britain's right wing media, who highlight the thousands of pounds given to him in legal aid and the cash-strapped government's costly efforts to deport him.