Deported cleric Abu Qatada lands in Jordan from Britain

AMMAN (AFP) - Islamist cleric Abu Qatada arrived in Jordan to face terror charges on Sunday after Britain deported him ending a decade-long legal battle to be rid of a man once dubbed Osama bin Laden's right hand in Europe.

The Palestinian-born preacher was handed over to prosecutors straight after he landed at Marka military airport in east Amman in readiness for his retrial on charges that earned him a life sentence in absentia.

"Abu Qatada was handed over to the authorities once he arrived in Amman. They are now interrogating him ahead of his retrial," Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani told the state-run Petra news agency.

"His retrial will be conducted in line with international standards, protecting his rights and ensuring justice, fairness, credibility and transparency."

Abu Qatada's father, brothers and other family members waited outside a military courthouse near the airport for his arrival, an AFP photographer reported.

"He will appear before state security court prosectors immediately and they will read the charges," said Hussein Omari, a lawyer at the Amman-based Adaleh Centre for Human Rights Studies, which is to monitor Abu Qatada's retrial.

Abu Qatada was condemned to death in absentia in 1999 for conspiracy to carry out terror attacks, including on the American school in Amman, but the sentence was immediately commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.

In 2000, he was sentenced in his absence to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on tourists in Jordan during millennium celebrations.

Under Jordanian law, he has the right to a retrial in his presence.

Britain was finally able to expel the 53-year-old father-of-five after the two governments last month ratified a Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in his retrial.

He was taken from prison in an armoured police van to a military airfield on the outskirts of London, from which he was flown out at 0146 GMT (9.46am Singapore time).

Home Secretary Theresa May said his departure proved that the government's efforts to deport him had been worth the £1.7 million (S$3.2 million) legal bill and would be "welcomed by the British public."

"This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country," she said in a statement released seconds after Abu Qatada's plane took off.

Television pictures showed Abu Qatada dressed in a white robe as he boarded the aircraft at the RAF Northolt base in west London. He had earlier left high security Belmarsh jail in southeast London in a blue armoured police van flanked by three police cars.

The radical cleric has been in and out of British prisons since 2002, although he has never been convicted of any crime, and London has been trying to deport him since 2005.

British and European courts blocked his expulsion on the grounds that evidence might be used against him that had been obtained by torture.

But after years of legal battles his lawyers unexpectedly said in May that he would return there once the fair trial treaty was ratified by the Jordanian parliament.

"I am glad that this government's determination to see him on a plane has been vindicated and that we have at last achieved what previous governments, parliament and the British public have long called for," Ms May said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had previously said he would be "one of the happiest people in Britain" when Abu Qatada was finally deported.

Abu Qatada's wife and five children are expected to remain in Britain, where he first sought asylum in 1993.

Born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in the now Israeli-occupied West Bank, Abu Qatada has Jordanian nationality because the town was part of Jordan at the time of his birth.

Videotapes of his sermons were allegedly found in the Hamburg flat of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta.

Top Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon once branded Abu Qatada Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, although the cleric denies ever having met the now slain Al-Qaeda leader.

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