Abu Qatada deportation: May 'deeply frustrated' at legal obstacles
Home Secretary Theresa May has said she is "deeply frustrated" at continued legal obstacles to the deportation of radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada.
The government is seeking to challenge a Court of Appeal ruling that he could face an unfair trial if he is deported to Jordan to face terror charges.
Mrs May suggested the European Court of Human Rights had "moved the goalposts" in the long-running case.
But Tory MP Mark Reckless accused her of a "craven surrender" to the Court.
In April 1999, Abu Qatada was convicted in his absence on terror charges in Jordan and sentenced to life imprisonment, and it is on these charges that he faces a retrial. He has never been charged with an offence in the UK.
Successive UK governments have fought a lengthy battle to have Abu Qatada deported to Jordan and Mrs May said last year that she hoped that he would "shortly" be put on a plane.
But these efforts suffered a setback last month when Court of Appeal judges said there was a risk that "impugned statements" obtained by the torture of others would be admitted in evidence against him and there was "a real risk of a flagrant denial of justice".
The government, which has previously received assurances from its Jordanian counterpart that this would not be the case, is seeking leave to appeal against the Court's judgement by taking the case to the Supreme Court.
Appearing before the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Mrs May came under fire from Conservative and Labour MPs about the length of time it was taking to remove Abu Qatada from the UK.
Labour's Keith Vaz, who chairs the committee, compared the legal battle to a five-set tennis match at Wimbledon - "May versus Qatada" - which "goes on for ever and ever" and said the government's lawyers had been "constantly outwitted" by those representing the cleric.
Conservative Michael Ellis said the whole country was "fed up" with the length of time it was taking.
Asked who was to blame for the latest delay, Mrs May said Jordan had changed its constitution relating to the admissibility of evidence allegedly obtained by torture but the new provisions had not been legally tested and there was a difference of opinion over its validity.
While the UK's Special Immigration Appeals Commission had accepted Jordan's assurances, she suggested the European Court of Human Rights - which is based in Strasbourg - had raised new legal points that had to be addressed.
"Strasbourg moved the goalposts," she said. "They set a new test... We have to operate on the basis of the situation we now find ourselves in."
Whatever its views on the case, Mrs May said the UK was a member of the Court and a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights and could not simply "ignore everything Strasbourg says".
But Mr Reckless said the Law Lords ruled in 2009 that Abu Qatada could be removed and the government should seek the Supreme Court's jurisdiction on the matter on this basis rather than going back to Strasbourg.
"The reason you have been unable to get rid of Abu Qatada is because you have refused to test the law on this and seek to get the British courts to uphold the British judgements previously," he said.
"The problem is you are refusing to seek to send him back because you prefer to put yourself down before Strasbourg and have this continued craven surrender to the European Court."
Mrs May rejected this, saying the legal "background" had changed since 2009, adding: "The suggestion that if the government had merely done a slightly different thing Abu Qatada would have been deported is wrong."
Asked when he would finally be deported, she said she "couldn't put a date on it and it would be silly for me to put a date on it" but insisted it remained her aim to see it happen as soon as possible.
Abu Qatada was first arrested in October 2002 in south London and detained in Belmarsh high security prison. He was re-arrested and released on bail a number of times over the years that followed.
In November 2012, he was released on bail when the courts blocked the home secretary's attempt to deport him to Jordan, but was arrested last month for allegedly breaching the strict bail conditions.
Asked by Labour's David Winnick whether Abu Qatada could still be prosecuted in the UK, potentially for the offence of incitement to religious hatred, Mrs May said the police were considering material discovered at the time of his re-arrest.
"In the current situation, the breach of bail conditions and what was discovered in the house is being looked at to see whether that is evidence that would lead to a prosecution in this case," she said.