AMMAN: A Jordanian court Thursday acquitted radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada, who was extradited from Britain last year, of charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.
But authorities will continue to detain the preacher because of separate charges related to a plot to attack tourists during Jordan’s New Year celebrations in 2000.
“The court announces the acquittal of the defendant for lack of evidence,” said Ahmad Qatarneh, the judge presiding over the three-man military tribunal, which has drawn the criticism of human rights advocates.
Abu Qatada, sitting on a bench in an enclosed iron dock, smiled and looked relaxed during the half-hour court session. Dressed in brown prison fatigues, he was flanked by black-clad security officers.
Members of his family cried out for joy when the verdict was read and they burst into tears.
Abu Qatada had previously been sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to carry out Al-Qaeda-style attacks against U.S. and other targets inside U.S. ally Jordan.
Thursday’s session was a retrial in which the prosecution had argued Abu Qatada was a mentor to militant cells in Jordan while he was in Britain, providing spiritual and material support to a campaign of violence during the late 1990s.
But the court quashed the conspiracy charges and postponed another hearing on the New Year plot charges until Sept. 7.
Abu Qatata’s defense lawyer Ghazi Thunaibat said he hoped the second trial would bring a similar sentence. “My client has spent too long in prison unfairly, and we hope the next verdict will finally end his plight and allow him to resume a normal life with his family.”
Despite the acquittal, the court upheld a confession that had convicted him in absentia in the earlier trial. The defense said the confession had been extracted under torture.
European and British courts used the confession to delay his deportation until he agreed to return to Jordan for a retrial.
“Human Rights Watch is troubled by the verdict that made it permissible to include allegations of a confession made under coercion that was held in doubt by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher who attended the session.
Abu Qatada’s return to Jordan was made possible by an extradition treaty adopted by Jordan and Britain that satisfied the concerns of British judges about the use of evidence obtained through torture.
Jordan denies it convicts people using confessions extracted under duress.