AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A radical Muslim preacher described as a key al Qaeda operative in Europe rejected terrorism charges Sunday linked to alleged plots targeting Americans and Israelis in Jordan, his lawyer said, hours after Britain deported him to bring an end to a decadelong legal saga over his extradition.
Jordan first submitted an extradition request to British authorities for the militant cleric known as Abu Qatada in 2001, but it was blocked in British and European courts over human rights concerns. Last month, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture aimed at easing those worries, paving the way for the 53-year-old preacher’s deportation.
Abu Qatada arrived at Amman’s civilian airport early Sunday on board a British aircraft and immediately was whisked away by heavily armed anti-terrorism police for questioning at a nearby courthouse. Police sealed off the area as the convoy drove against traffic to the court building, just across the street from the airport. Armed policemen kept a crush of journalists at bay.
After nearly two hours of questioning, Jordanian prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiring to carry out terror attacks in Jordan twice — once in 1999 for a foiled plot against the American school in Amman and another time in 2000 for allegedly targeting Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during New Year’s celebrations.
In both cases, Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia years ago and sentenced to life in prison. With his return, those sentences have been suspended and he will receive a new trial.
Abu Qatada’s lawyer, Tayseer Thiab, said his client “told military prosecutors that he is not guilty of terrorism and rejected the charges against him.”
Jordanian authorities ordered Abu Qatada held for 15 days pending further questioning, according to one of the prosecutors. He said the cleric will be held at Muwaqar I, a prison in Amman’s southeastern industrial suburb of Sahab. The military district attorney banned the publication of the prosecutors’ names.
Mr. Thiab said he will try to free his client on bail Monday.
Outside the courthouse, Abu Qatada’s father, Mahmoud, told The Associated Press that his “son is innocent, and I hope the court will set him free.”
The cleric’s younger brother, Ibrahim, said he and his father met with Abu Qatada for 15 minutes in the prosecutor’s office and that his brother “looked well and in high spirits.” He said that the three prayed together and that the cleric “kissed my dad’s hands and feet when he saw him.” He told them British and Jordanian authorities had not used handcuffs.
“How do you think I felt seeing my brother after 22 years?” Ibrahim said. “Look at my eyes and you’ll know the answer.”
Britain accused him of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric’s sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Abu Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum in the United Kingdom a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities, which allegedly included raising funds to finance terror plots in Jordan.
British authorities first tried to deport Abu Qatada in 2001, then detained him a year later under anti-terrorism laws, which at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be jailed without charge. Though he was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, the cleric was kept under close surveillance and detained in various ways.