Islamist cleric Abu Qatada yesterday pleaded not guilty to terror charges pressed by Jordanian military prosecutors just hours after his deportation from Britain, his lawyer said.
Abu Qatada, who had been in and out of British prisons since 2002 even though he was never convicted of any offence, had once been described as former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe.
“Abu Qatada pleaded not guilty,” defense lawyer Taysir Diab said after the closed-door hearing before a military tribunal. “I will appeal tomorrow [Monday] to the court to release him on bail.”
The Palestinian-born preacher was handed over to prosecutors straight after he landed at Marka military airport in east Amman.
He was later taken to a military courthouse near the airfield, where his father, brothers and other family members had been waiting for his arrival, a photographer reported.
“State security court prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiracy to carry our terrorist acts,” a judicial official said. “He was remanded in judicial custody for 15 days in the Muwaqqar prison.”
Reporters were not allowed into the courtroom to hear the charges being read out despite a pledge by Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani of “transparency” in Jordan’s handling of Abu Qatada’s retrial.
Earlier in the day Momani said Qutada’s retrial “would be conducted in line with international standards, protecting his rights and ensuring justice, fairness, credibility and transparency.”
A security official said that after his arrival “a team of doctors including the state coroner examined the suspect and made sure there were no signs of torture.”
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 labor.
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 armored police van to Royal Air Force Northolt base on the outskirts of London.
British Home Secretary Theresa May said his departure proved that the government’s efforts to deport him had been worth the ￡1.7 million (US$2.7 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 airbase.
He had earlier left high security Belmarsh jail in southeast London in a blue armored police van flanked by three police cars.
London had 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.
However, after years of legal battles his lawyers in May unexpectedly said 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,” May said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday said he was happy the cleric had been deported.
“I was absolutely delighted. This is something this government said it would get done, and we have got it done,” Cameron told reporters. “It’s an issue that, like the rest of the country, has made my blood boil.”
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.