Qatada, 53, is charged with plotting terror attacks against Israelis, Americans and other Westerners in Jordan in two foiled attempts in 1999 and 2000. In both cases, Qatada, who was abroad at the time, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison.
But on his deportation to his homeland in July, those sentences were suspended and he had to be re-tried under Jordanian law.
Qatada, real name Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
Britain accused him of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the September 11 terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric’s sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the September 11 hijackers.
On his arrival in Amman on July 7, Jordanian prosecutors charged him with conspiring to carry out terror attacks in Jordan twice – once in 1999 for a foiled plot against the American school in the Jordanian capital, and another time in 2000 for allegedly targeting Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats during Jordan’s Millennium celebrations.
The court – consisting of two civilian judges and a military one – said the cases will be heard separately, and proceeded with the hearing in the case involving Israeli and American tourists.
But Qatada objected to the presence of the military judge – Colonel Mohammad Afif – and said it violated an agreement with Britain that paved way for his extradition and meant to guarantee him a fair trial in his homeland.
He appeared defiant as he stood in the dock, his back to the bench. Later, he asked for a microphone and addressed the tribunal. “I will not answer questions by this court because I do not recognize its jurisdiction,” he said. His relatives, including his son Qatada, and reporters crowded the courtroom. Cameramen and photographers were not allowed inside.
“This tribunal includes a military judge and this is a violation of the deal with Britain that encouraged me to return home for re-trial,” he added somberly.
Presiding judge Ahmad Qatarneh, a civilian, halted the hearing for 30 minutes. The court had planned to hear the other case, but instead adjourned the proceedings until December 24.
In Britain earlier this year Qatada questioned the impartiality of Jordan’s military court, an issue that delayed his deportation for years. But after Jordan and Britain ratified their treaty on torture, aimed at easing those worries in June, the radical preacher voluntarily accepted to return to Jordan for a re-trial.
No official British observers attended the proceedings in Amman but a court official said a Jordanian-British friend of Qatada and a Jordanian representative of a committee that assisted in Jordan’s negotiations with Britain on the torture deal were in the courtroom.
Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities. Efforts to deport Qatada from Britain were repeatedly thwarted over an eight-year period before he indicated last summer he would voluntarily return to Jordan.
Two men charged with supporting terrorists in Afghanistan and Chechnya are due to appear in a federal court in the US.
Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan were extradited from Britain last year. They are accused of operating websites to raise cash, recruit fighters and solicit items such as gas masks.