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Britain: Extremist Cleric And Nine Others To Be Deported As Terrorism Suspects

The British government has introduced several tough laws since the 7 July bombing British police yesterday detained the extremist Muslim cleric Abu Qatada and nine other foreign terrorist suspects. Abu Qatada, who was arrested at his London home, has been called Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador" in Europe. He was convicted in absentia by Jordan on terrorist charges in 2000. He and the others had previously been subject to house arrest in Britain, but could not be extradited because of concerns they could be subject to torture in their home countries. The British government signed a memorandum of understanding with Jordan on 10 August that torture will not be used against deportees. But experts predict it will still be weeks, if not months, before the detainees are extradited, because their lawyers are likely to contest the deportations.

London, 12 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The 10 detainees, arrested on suspicion of posing a threat to national security in Britain, are now being held in London’s Woodhill high-security prison. They were detained yesterday in a massive police raid at dawn in several locations in and around London.

The arrests follow an announcement last week by Prime Minister Tony Blair of new measures to deport and exclude from Britain anyone advocating hatred and violence.

The policy allows Britain to refuse re-entry to people deemed dangerous to the public good. The United Kingdom announced today that it has barred Muslim cleric Omar Bakri from returning to Britain from Lebanon, where he was detained by police after traveling there last week.
“We understand that the government thinks that it has reached a memorandum of understanding with Jordan, but we do not believe that any such piece of paper can protect people."

Experts say the same policy makes it almost certain the 10 men detained yesterday will be extradited.

Dalall Stevens is a British law specialist at the University of Warwick. She said “They will be questioned before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which is the body which is not quite a court, because it’s not held in the open, but it deals with the terrorist cases. Certainly, there will be lawyers advising these people in relation to the ability of the government to actually return them to these countries.”

Britain, as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, is not allowed to deport people to a country where they face torture or death.

Britain is now seeking assurances from a total of 10 countries that they will protect the safety of deportees.

Stevens says the British government may have chosen to detain the suspects now because an agreement has been made with Jordan, with other countries likely to soon follow suit. “These memoranda of understanding are supposed to be assurances from certain countries," she says. "And obviously the one that’s been agreed up to date is Jordan, but they may be looking to Algeria and maybe other countries as well to reach these understandings. They are trying to suggest that they have some form of contractual nature.”

Human rights organizations say they are very concerned about the deportations, despite the memoranda of understanding. Doug Jewell is a spokesman for Britain's National Council for Civil Liberties. He said that, “We understand that the government thinks that it has reached a memorandum of understanding with Jordan, but we do not believe that any such piece of paper can protect people."

Jewell adds that the countries asked to sign the agreements were deemed unsafe in the past because they were known to torture people. He says he doubts much has changed.

Stevens says human rights lawyers are right to insist that the government explain why it has changed its evaluation of the situation and is suddenly clearing the way for extradition of suspects: “Back in February, and fairly recently, the government has admitted that [in the case of] some of these countries, there were question marks about returning them, and they could be subject to torture. So, lawyers will be seeking a little bit more information and assurances that this is not going to happen, and [determining] what has changed in that period of time [to cause the government to adopt a new stance on extradition].”

In the past, the government ordered that terror suspects be detained without trial. The detentions, however, were halted by the House of Lords (parliament’s upper chamber), and since then the detainees have been subjected to a form of house arrest.

Abu Qatada, who was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and is described as a Syrian, has lived in Britain for 12 years since arriving as a political refugee from Jordan.

He has been accused of preaching hatred and intolerance. He is also suspected of being Osama bin Laden’s “right-hand man” in Europe. His followers include both shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the 9/11 would-be hijacker Zacharias Moussaoui.

He was convicted in absentia in Jordan on charges of conspiring to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists during the kingdom's millennium celebrations.

Eight of the other men are reported to be Algerian -- one having supposedly fought in Chechnya. Another has a Lebanese passport.

Observers like Jewell say the government is facing a difficult task in getting the extradition process completed quickly: “We do not know what time scale of this is going to be. But we think it may well be a long, drawn-out process.”

Jewell adds it is very likely the detainees will appeal -- a process that could add weeks or months to the procedure.