Page last updated at 20:37 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Radical cleric 'may flee abroad'

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Abu Qatada
Abu Qatada, "Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe"

Radical cleric Abu Qatada is considering leaving the UK if he can find a country to take him, an immigration tribunal has heard.

The preacher, described as a threat to UK national security, was arrested on Saturday, accused of breaching bail.

The Home Office told the hearing Mr Qatada may be planning to flee the UK.

His counsel said he knew nothing about posts on an extremist website, urging a cleric to fight abroad, and that talks about him leaving were "above board".

Allegations

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which acts as the UK's national security court, must decide whether to keep Mr Qatada in prison or allow him to return home on strict bail conditions.

In June, he was released from jail after judges said he could not be deported to his home country of Jordan.

He has been found guilty there of terrorist offences in his absence, but has successfully argued the convictions rely on evidence obtained by torture. The Home Office has challenged that decision.

This is really a completely tenuous and speculative basis for withdrawing his liberty
Edward Fitzgerald QC

His bail conditions include a 22-hour home curfew, ban him from access to mobile phones or the internet and also ban him from meeting a long list of al-Qaeda members, including Osama Bin Laden.

The commission heard that the Home Office had made a series of allegations against the preacher, some of which will not be disclosed on national security grounds.

The public allegations include that a message was posted on an extremist website by Abu Yayha Al Libi, an alleged senior al-Qaeda member.

This message urged a leading scholar to "heed the call" and "make himself present with the Mujahideen on the battlefield", the SIAC heard.

Security officials allege that the message was aimed at Mr Qatada, who is also known as Omar Othman.

But Edward Fitzgerald QC, for the cleric, said the Jordanian-Palestinian had known nothing of the message until it was revealed to him in court on Tuesday.

"There's no suggestion of a response or receipt of the message by Mr Othman," he said.

"This is really a completely tenuous and speculative basis for withdrawing his liberty."

'Risk of torture'

He said efforts had been made to find him a safe country where he would not face the risk of torture or an unfair trial. These efforts had involved the cleric's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, and a writer, Victoria Britten.

"There have been quite above-board discussions of him going to a third-party country where there will be no risk of torture," said Mr Fitzgerald.

"But there's no suggestion that would be done without the full approval of the Home Office.

"He has taken legal advice on renouncing Jordanian citizenship and discussion of his legal return to Palestine [where he was born]."

The preacher is also alleged to have breached his bail conditions with a video-taped sermon found in a police search of his home earlier in the autumn.

Mr Fitzgerald said the alleged sermon was merely a private talk to his children on the important of the Muslim festival Eid.

Mr Justice Mitting, chairman of the commission, said that the publicly stated grounds were not enough to justify revoking Mr Qatada's bail. However, argument continues over the secret allegations.

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