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Britain deports cleric Abu Qatada after legal marathon

Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada arrives back at his home after being released on bail, in London in this November 13, 2012 file photograph.
Radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada arrives back at his home after being released on bail, in London in this November 13, 2012 file photograph.

By William James and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

LONDON/AMMAN (Reuters) - A radical Muslim cleric once called "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe" was deported from Britain to Jordan on Sunday, ending years of British government efforts to send him back home to face terrorism charges.

A police convoy collected Abu Qatada from London's Belmarsh prison after midnight and drove him through the streets of the capital to a military airport. Soon after arriving in Jordan, he was taken under heavy guard to a nearby military court.

The legal battle to deport Abu Qatada has embarrassed successive British governments. Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "absolutely delighted" it was over.

"It's an issue that ... has made my blood boil - that this man who has no right to be in our country, who's a threat to our country, that it took so long and was so difficult to deport him," Cameron told reporters.

Jordanian judicial officials said the state security prosecutor charged Abu Qatada with conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks in Jordan in 1999 and 2000. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia on those charges but will now be retried.

Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Othman, denied the charges.

"My client denied all the allegations, and he asserts that his return to Jordan was out of his own free will, in order to be with his family," Tayseer Diab, his lawyer, told Reuters.

The prosecutor of the military court ordered his detention in Muaqar prison in a suburb of the capital for 15 days pending questioning.

"His spirits are high and we hope to get him bail soon," said Mahmoud Othman, Abu Qatada's father, outside the court.

Many civic groups have criticized Abu Qatada's trial in a military court, saying it is illegal under the constitution and lacks proper legal safeguards. They demand he be tried in a civil court.

Jordan is seeking to improve its civil rights image but has long been accused by rights groups of widespread abuse of Islamist prisoners, which it denies.

Lawyers say many Islamists have been tried in the last decade with much fanfare to curry favor with the United States and bolster the kingdom's credentials as a player in the U.S. declared war on terrorism.

Jordan's Minister of State Mohammad al-Momani told Reuters Abu Qatada would have a fair trial "with the Jordanian judiciary respecting human rights."

Britain had said the preacher posed a national security risk, but courts had repeatedly blocked his deportation.

His return was made possible by an extradition treaty adopted by Jordan and Britain last week that satisfied the concerns of British judges about the use of evidence obtained through torture.

Sermons of the heavily bearded Abu Qatada were found in a Hamburg flat used by some of those who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Abu Qatada was deported on the anniversary of the July 7, 2005 suicide attacks on London's subway and bus network that killed more than 50 people.

Linked by a Spanish judge to the late al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Abu Qatada has been in and out of jail in Britain since first being arrested in 2001. He was sent back to prison last March for breaching his bail conditions.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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