Qatada evidence 'extremely thin'

Some of the evidence against terror suspect Abu Qatada is "extremely thin", a senior immigration judge has said.

Mr Justice Mitting made the comment as he began a "factual review" of whether the 51-year-old radical cleric would get a fair trial if deported to Jordan.

Qatada, described by a judge as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, is facing a retrial on terror charges after Home Secretary Theresa May was given assurances by Jordan that no evidence gained through torture would be used against him.

But discussing the case as the hearing began, Mr Justice Mitting, president of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac), said: "The evidence seems extremely thin."

Qatada, who is also called Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has challenged and ultimately thwarted every attempt by the Government over the last decade to put him on a plane and is fighting against deportation at the immigration tribunal appeal in central London.

Danny Friedman, representing Qatada, said: "I think there are some serious issues with the allegations made against Mr Othman."

He was referring to terror charges which Qatada was convicted of in Jordan in his absence and for which he faces a retrial. Mr Friedman also insisted Qatada's lawyers' aim was not simply to delay proceedings further by launching yet more appeals. "That was not necessarily our aim, two more appeals and 10 more years," he said.

But even if Qatada loses when the decision is handed down next month, it could still be many months before the Government can send him to Jordan as he could eventually appeal again to Europe's human rights judges. Qatada, who is in custody, did not attend the hearing.

Repeated failed attempts by UK governments over the last 10 years to deport Qatada have cost nearly £1 million in legal fees, Government figures show. No figures have been given for how much Qatada has received in legal aid and some estimates put the cost of keeping Qatada in the UK, either in a high-security jail or closely monitored under strict conditions in the community, along with the legal costs of the fight to deport him, at more than £3 million.

Europe's human rights judges ruled in January that Qatada could only be deported if evidence gained through torture would not be used against him in his trial. The appeal will test whether Mrs May has secured assurances from Jordan to ensure a fair trial and whether deportation proceedings can continue, rather than only the strength of the case against him. Anthony Laydan, the former British ambassador to Libya who specialises in negotiating diplomatic assurances, will give evidence on Thursday. He is expected to be followed by a Jordanian lawyer who advises the British Embassy in Amman.