Abu Qatada judges to decide his appeal on 9 May

Abu Qatada Image copyright AFP
Image caption Lawyers for Abu Qatada say the UK government got their dates wrong

Top judges at the European Court of Human Rights will meet on Wednesday, 9 May, to decide whether cleric Abu Qatada can appeal against deportation from the UK.

The preacher lodged a last-minute appeal to the court last month.

Hours earlier, the Home Secretary had begun attempts to get him deported by the end of April.

The attempted appeal has led to a furious political row over whether the Home Office got its dates wrong.

The panel of five Strasbourg judges will decide whether the case can be referred to the Grand Chamber, the court's highest decision-making body.

In January, European Court judges ruled that Abu Qatada could not be deported to Jordan unless the country provided an assurance that his retrial on terrorism offences would not include evidence obtained from torture.

Although the decision blocked his removal from the UK, the government won on every other ground, including that the preacher would not be ill treated.

Strasbourg judgements only become final after three months, to allow both sides the opportunity to appeal to the Grand Chamber.

A spokesman for the court said that the judges would consider on Wednesday 9 May whether the Grand Chamber could take on the case - but they may not reach a decision or announce it immediately.

If the case is taken up, it could take the judges a year to reach a final decision because they have the power to examine all aspects of the case, including the parts that the government has already won.

The preacher's appeal sparked a political row over whether the deadline had already passed.

The original judgement was on 17 January - and the Home Office understood the deadline to pass at midnight on 16 April. But court officials say the deadline was midnight the following day.

In between the disputed dates, the Home Secretary ordered the preacher to be re-arrested, saying the European Case was over and Jordan had provided an assurance on a fair trial. That meant, she argued, he could be deported swiftly.

But hours later that process ground to a halt because the European Court said its judges had to decide whether the last-minute appeal was valid.

'Clear advice'

Last month, Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs that she had received clear and consistent advice from government lawyers on the deadline. She said she had been justified to order the cleric's detention once the government understood the deadline to have passed.

Abu Qatada had been released from detention at the maximum security Long Lartin Prison in Worcestershire after the January judgement from the European Court left his deportation uncertain.

The preacher, once described as the spiritual head of the mujahideen in Europe, was first detained after the 9/11 attacks. British judges later approved his deportation, saying ministers had secured suitable assurances from Jordan over his treatment.

Critics say that the assurances are not worth the paper they are written on - and that the preacher should be properly prosecuted and jailed if he has broken the law.

Ministers have told Parliament they have spent more than £800,000 in legal fees since 2002 fighting the case.

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