REPORTING FROM LONDON -- A radical Islamic preacher who has been under detention for most of the last six and a half years but never formally charged with an offense was released from jail Monday amid public criticism over why he is being allowed to remain in Britain.
Abu Qatada, 51, was let out of a high-security prison in central England on Monday night, a week after a judge issued an order for him to be bailed despite vigorous objections from the government. British officials consider Abu Qatada extremely dangerous, a cleric who encourages suicide attacks and terrorism, and prefer to see him stay behind bars or deported back to his native Jordan.
His release does not make Abu Qatada much of a free man, however. The conditions of his bail are so stringent as to be almost tantamount to house arrest, including confinement to his home 22 hours a day, restriction from traveling outside a heavily circumscribed area, the wearing of an electronic tag, and a ban on Internet, computer and cellphone use.
In addition, Abu Qatada is barred from having virtually any adult visitors from outside his immediate family, unless they are first vetted by authorities. The bail agreement specifically names more than two dozen people with whom he is to have no association.
British officials say they will continue to try to find a way to ship Abu Qatada back to Jordan, where he faces terrorism charges. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights blocked Abu Qatada's deportation on the grounds that he could face conviction on the basis of evidence obtained by torture.
The British government is now trying to lock in assurances from Jordan that it would not use such tainted evidence to try Abu Qatada and that the cleric would not face torture at the hands of Jordanian authorities. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently telephoned Jordan's King Abdullah II to urge him to help resolve the matter and is dispatching a government minister to Amman, the Jordanian capital, to conduct negotiations.
"Everyone is united in wanting this man deported," a spokesman for Britain's Home Office said Monday on customary condition of anonymity. "This government will exhaust all avenues ... to get Qatada on a plane."
The appeals court judge has given the British government three months to show that it is making progress toward Abu Qatada's deportation to Jordan. If it does not, then Abu Qatada's strict bail conditions could be lifted.
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, came to Britain in search of asylum from Jordan in 1993. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was arrested on suspicion of inciting terrorism under new laws enacted by Parliament. A Spanish judge once called him Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe," and the British government regards him and his violence-supporting rhetoric as a threat to national security.
Abu Qatada was jailed in 2005 but was released for a short time under terms similar to those imposed Monday. He was sent back to prison in 2008 after violating those restrictions.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Abu Qatada in 2005. Credit: British Prison Service