LONDON (Reuters) – A radical cleric once described as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe” was freed from a British prison to live under virtual house arrest on Monday after a court ruled that his detention without trial was unlawful.
The Jordanian preacher known as Abu Qatada must wear an electronic tag to allow the police to keep track of him, spend 22 hours a day at his family home and is banned from using the Internet and mobile phones.
Twice convicted in his absence in Jordan of involvement in terrorist plots, Britain says he is still a national security risk and should be deported before London hosts the Olympic Games in July and August.
Britain says videotapes of his sermons were found in a German apartment used by three of the people who carried out al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Qatada was released from the high-security Long Lartin prison in central England on Monday night, a source familiar with the case said. The government declined to comment.
Television pictures showed him being driven out of the prison in a van.
The 51-year-old, whose real name is Omar Othman, has been in and out of jail since he was first detained without charge under British anti-terrorism laws in 2002.
Qatada, a father-of-five who had been living in London, denies belonging to al Qaeda. If he returns to Jordan, his lawyers say he risks being tortured or retried using evidence extracted from others using torture.
Under strict bail conditions, he will only be allowed out of the house for two hours each day and visitors must vetted. Qatada cannot go to mosques or lead prayer sessions.
His bail papers say that if he bumps into a friend in the street, he must “after any initial greeting, disengage himself from the situation whether by explaining the terms of his bail order or by making an excuse.”
The European Court of Human Rights ruled last week that his detention without charge was unlawful and that Britain must not send him to Jordan.
Seven European judges ruled that Qatada would not receive a fair trial in Jordan because evidence against him may have been obtained using torture.
His case has been a thorn in the side of successive British governments.
Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from some in his Conservative Party to stand up to Europe, said last week it was “completely unacceptable” that Britain can not detain Qatada or deport him.
“We are committed to removing him from the country. We want to see him deported and we are looking at all the options for doing that,” Cameron’s spokesman told reporters on Monday.
The Home Office (interior ministry) and Qatada’s lawyers made no comment.
Human rights groups say he should stand trial in Britain. That is highly unlikely due to worries that some of the evidence against him was extracted using torture. Ministers also fear that a trial could compromise the work of the security services who investigated Qatada.