Abu Qatada appeal: UK asked Jordan to grant pardon

Abu Qatada The Home Office says Abu Qatada continues to pose a risk to national security

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The British government asked the Jordanian authorities to consider a pardon for radical cleric Abu Qatada, it has emerged in court.

But an appeal hearing was told that Jordan said that would not be possible and he would have to stand trial there.

Government sources later said the request related to previous convictions in absentia, not to a fresh trial.

Abu Qatada is challenging Home Secretary Theresa May's decision to order his deportation to Jordan.

Jordan also refused a UK request to ensure evidence from torture was not used against him, a judge heard.

Abu Qatada's appeal to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is likely to be the last in his seven-year legal battle and is expected to last eight days.

The UK says he is a threat to security but his lawyers question Jordanian assurances over whether he would face a fair trial absent of evidence gained through torture.

Anthony Layden, a former British ambassador to Libya who specialises in negotiating diplomatic assurances, gave evidence at the hearing and revealed details of the talks, which were held in Jordan.

Under cross-examination by Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Abu Qatada, Mr Layden agreed that the possibility of a pardon was explored by James Brokenshire, the then security minister.

During this appeal, the preacher's lawyers are trying to dismantle the government's position that Abu Qatada will get a fair retrial in Jordan.

They want to convince the appeal panel that there was a mad scramble in the Home Office as ministers, officials and special advisors felt the political pressure to get the cleric out.

A pardon for a man whom judges have dubbed "truly dangerous" may surprise many. But, seen through legal eyes, it might have led to deportation - because the European Court's concern is whether Abu Qatada will get a fair trial.

Whitehall sources insist the pardon proposal only related to the preacher's existing convictions in absentia - and not to a possible retrial. They argue that a retrial would be fair.

And that's the single issue in this appeal: has the government got anything to show that he will get a fair trial? Abu Qatada's lawyers say not. It will be for the appeal panel to decide.

The pardon was being sought because the evidence against the cleric was "granted by torture", he agreed.

Mr Fitzgerald asked: "The British government was content for him to have a pardon on the basis that the evidence against him had been obtained by torture?"

"I don't think that I would put it quite like that," said Mr Layden.

"You were asking whether there could be a pardon before he goes back?" said Mr Fitzgerald.

"Yes. Or that he would get a pardon after he goes back."

But Whitehall sources later clarified: "The government has always wanted Abu Qatada to face justice.

"The reference to a pardon was in relation to his in absentia conviction, so he could face a new trial in line with the judgment of the European court."

Abu Qatada has been convicted in absentia of involvement in a plot to cause explosions on Western and Israeli targets in Jordan, to coincide with the millennium celebrations.

However, if returned to Jordan he would be retried for the same offences.

Mr Layden said the UK government had asked Jordanian prosecutors if they would give "an undertaking in advance that they would not rely on the statements" gained through torture, but the Jordanians refused.

"The difficulty was that we could not get an assurance from Jordan [on torture evidence]," said Mr Layden. He said the government had sought some kind of "formula to remove the risk" - but there had been concerns from ministerial special advisors that the talks had not achieved their "minimum requirements".

The former ambassador said there was no risk of Abu Qatada being retried and acquitted, and subsequently held in custody anyway under administrative detention.

Mr Layden said the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Jordan would also help to safeguard against this.

The former ambassador said the radical cleric "will get a trial which is sufficiently fair to discharge our responsibilities" in protecting his human rights.

Start Quote

If that's the only evidence in the case... it's difficult to understand on what basis the appellant [Abu Qatada] could be prosecuted”

End Quote Mr Justice Mitting

Presiding judge Mr Justice Mitting has already said the Jordanian terror suspect's links to an alleged bomb plot looked to be "extremely thin".

He stated that the "only evidence" of a link was that Abu Qatada had paid $5,000 (£3,100) for a computer.

Reviewing legal documents, Mr Justice Mitting said they suggested that an alleged co-conspirator - who has claimed he was tortured before giving evidence - had been given the money by Abu Qatada.

"If that's the only evidence in the case... it's difficult to understand on what basis the appellant [Abu Qatada] could be prosecuted," the judge said.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission is a semi-secret court that deals with national security deportations where some of the sensitive material cannot be disclosed in public.

Danny Friedman, representing Abu Qatada, agreed and said there were "very serious problems" with the case.

He added that witnesses did not give statements voluntarily and were "threatened with torture" while in detention in Jordan.

But a document submitted to the court by lawyers for Home Secretary Teresa May claims Abu Qatada had "failed to demonstrate" that his removal to Jordan would amount to a "flagrant denial of justice".

Repeated failed attempts by UK governments over the last 10 years to deport the radical cleric, who is in custody and did not attend Thursday's hearing, have cost nearly £1m in legal fees, according to government figures.

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