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AFP
Last updated: September 24, 2014

Jordanian court frees radical cleric Abu Qatada

Radical cleric Abu Qatada was acquitted of terrorism charges by a Jordanian court Wednesday and freed from jail, ending more than a decade of legal cases against the firebrand preacher.

Abu Qatada, who was deported from Britain last year, was found not guilty of conspiring to attack tourists in Jordan during millenium celebrations, due to insufficient evidence, officials said.

The bearded 53-year-old, who had pleaded not guilty, broke into tears upon hearing the verdict, while members of his family applauded and shouted Allahu akbar (God is greater).

His lawyer, Hussein Mubadeen, called the decision "a success for Jordanian justice".

Outside the courtroom, relatives including women clad in black burqas embraced and kissed each other as they celebrated the ruling.

The Palestinian-born cleric was later seen leaving Muwaqqar prison, just south of Amman, where he was greeted by family members before going to his home in the Jordanian capital.

Britain said there was no chance of the cleric returning.

"It is right that the due process of law has taken place in Jordan. The UK courts agreed that Abu Qatada posed a threat to national security in the UK, so we are pleased that we were able to remove him," a government spokesman said.

"Abu Qatada remains subject to a deportation order and a United Nations travel ban. He is not coming back to the UK."

Abu Qatada -- once described as the right-hand man in Europe of late Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden -- was deported from Britain to Jordan in July 2013 after a 10-year legal fight.

- Critic of IS jihadists -

Despite his detention, Abu Qatada has been outspoken on certain issues, including the brutal jihadists who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria in recent weeks.

On September 7, he criticised the Islamic State group for beheading Western journalists, calling it a "killing machine" and likening its fighters to "dogs of hellfire".

In July, he denounced IS for declaring a "caliphate", saying it was "meaningless" because it was not approved by other jihadists.

Wednesday's ruling ends a decade of legal cases against Abu Qatada, including the extradition battle that cost the British taxpayer £1.7 million ($2.7 million).

He faced two retrials after he was convicted in his absence on the charges in 1999 and 2000 and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment.

In the first retrial in June he was acquitted of plotting a 1999 attack on the American school in Amman.

Born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in 1960, the burly father of five was one of the most prominent of a set of extremist preachers based in London in the 1990s and 2000s.

Videotapes of his sermons were allegedly found in the Hamburg flat of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in September 1993 with his family on a forged United Arab Emirates passport and claimed asylum on the basis that he had been tortured in Jordan.

He gained refugee status the next year but his fiery oratory soon brought him to the government's attention, as he advocated the killing of Jews and praised attacks on Americans.

After Britain adopted anti-terror laws following the September 11 attacks, he was arrested in 2002.

Attempts to deport him began in 2005 but were stymied by appeals all to the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2012 that Britain could not deport him because evidence of two co-accused in Jordan was likely to have been obtained through torture.

He was eventually deported last year after Britain and Jordan formally approved a treaty guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture would not be used against him in any retrial.

Despite his acquittal, David Blunkett, the UK home secretary at the time of his detention in London, said Britain had been right to deport him.

"Abu Qatada's managed to do what he wanted to do, which was to prevaricate for 10 years," Blunkett told BBC radio.

"By doing that he's made it very much more difficult for the prosecution. However, it also proves that he was wrong, because the case he made against extradition was that he wouldn't receive a fair trial in Jordan, and he clearly has."

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