Well, the moment has finally come: after years of legal wrangling in Britain and a lengthy trial in Jordan, Abu Qatada al-Filastini has heard his verdict against him at the State Security Court in Amman at last. Abu Qatada has been the subject of several publications in the past few years (see here, for example, and for context of his stay in “Londonistan”, see also here) and a new chapter of his life has presumably just begun, although we’ll have to wait till September to be sure. I have closely followed the case against him in Jordan, both through media reports and through having been present at his trial in Amman several times and this post is an account of that trial and the final verdict.
Abu Qatada was obviously notorious as a scholar for North African radical groups long before he ever went to Jordan, but it was his deportation to that country that set in motion the trial that so many had waited for for so long. The reasons Abu Qatada was perceived as being such a nuisance to the British taxpayer was that he was not allowed (and allegedly even unable, because of back pains) to work because he had to stay inside for almost the entire day for security reasons, only being allowed outside with an ankle bracelet to make sure he didn’t get away. At the same time, however, he was made to live in a taxpayer-funded 800,000 pound home in London’s West End. I distinctly remember British tabloids writing about this at the time as a national disgrace, particularly given Abu Qatada’s views about Britain and its policies. The problem was, however, that there were fears that Abu Qatada might be tortured in Jordan and, as such, Britain could not legally send him back there. In the end, Abu Qatada, probably sick and tired of the whole procedure himself, agreed to make a deal with Britain and willingly go to Jordan. The deal entailed his receiving a fair trial and not having evidence extracted by means of torture used against him.
Once in Jordan, Abu Qatada was accused of two things, namely of having been a member of the Jordanian group Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi, which is said to have been involved in plans to commit terrorists attacks (including an attack against the American School in Amman), and for his alleged involvement in the so-called “Millennium Plot”, a plan to commit attacks against tourists celebrating the new millennium in Jordan. He was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) for the first charge and to 15 years in prison for the second in absentia in, respectively, 1999 and 2000, so long before he came back to Jordan last year. Since there had never been a real court case against him during which he had been able to defend himself, this was supposed to happen now.
As much trouble as the British government had to bring an end (at least as far as Britain was concerned) to the whole Abu Qatada saga, it was really just a prelude to what was to come during the actual court case in Jordan. Unlike in Britain, Abu Qatada had to spend his time in Jordan in gaol. Apart from being denied bail, which his lawyer Taysir Dhiyab protest against, the latter also claimed that Abu Qatada suffered from various other restrictions. He is said to have had only limited access to his family and had to wear the same prison clothes that others wore too. His lawyer argued that for Abu Qatada, being a religious man, this was against his beliefs. The whole episode of Abu Qatada’s clothing took on a slightly comical turn when the discussion focussed on whether or not he had to wear certain underpants, which apparently became subject to legal dispute too. Meanwhile, Abu Qatada’s son Qatada, who’s the spitting image of his father, started attracting attention, too.
On a more serious note, Abu Qatada’s lawyers protested against the fact that there was a military judge present during the trial, which he claimed violated the terms of the deal he had made with Britain. The court thereafter suspended two sessions for this reason and eventually decided to give Abu Qatada a civilian trial, supposedly in accordance with the Jordanian constitution. Other issues surrounding this case included hunger strikes by other Jihadi-Salafi prisoners, in which Abu Qatada is said to have participated to protest against the treatment prisoners were getting, the occasional delays in the court proceedings (including one requested by the defence to have documents in favour of Abu Qatada translated into Arabic) and the withdrawal of one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers and the search for another. At one point last month, there was even talk of trading Abu Qatada for the kidnapped Jordanian ambassador to Libya, but this never happened.
The court sessions themselves were quite chaotic too. Witness after witness was brought in to testify against Abu Qatada, but none of them actually did. Many of them gave long stories about themselves, which were subsequently recorded not by a stenographer but by a regular typist (after being repeated word for word by the judge). This meant not only that one heard every testimony twice, but it sometimes also led to the hilarious situation of the typist not understanding a certain word, with the judges occasionally all getting involved in a discussion of what exactly the witness had said. More importantly, few (if any) of the witnesses actually touched upon the cases that Abu Qatada was being tried for. In fact, whenever the witnesses were asked whether they knew Abu Qatada personally, they invariably answered “no”. According to observers I talked to at the trial, the prosecution was apparently trying to build a very general case against terrorism and radical Muslims and tried to fit Abu Qatada in there somewhere.
The court sessions were seldom boring, however. It was interesting to see Abu Qatada getting involved in his case by shouting that the trial wasn’t fair, that it violated the terms of the British-Jordanian agreement about him and that, as such, he didn’t recognise the court. His lawyer would often try to calm him down, realising that such talk – justified or not – would hardly do his case any good. Most interesting to me personally, however, were the breaks in between the two halves of every session, when journalists would flock to the large cage that Abu Qatada had to sit in and write down every word he said about the trial and particularly the situation in Syria. As Cole Bunzel has written (see here), Abu Qatada not only wrote about this subject from prison, but also frequently used his day in court as a pulpit from which to denounce ISIS, as other radical scholars have done too.
The actual verdict today, which I attended, was preceded by a lengthy point-by-point account of the whole history of the case by the main judge at the trial. He told so much about the different people involved, the books that Abu Qatada had written and everything else, that it seemed as if he was building up to a “guilty” verdict. As it turned out, however, Abu Qatada was acquitted of the case revolving around the Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi and the verdict on the Millennium Plot will be given in September. This was not completely satisfactory for the defence, perhaps, but Abu Qatada’s family were overjoyed and the man himself had a distinct grin on his face too.
The response of the journalists and other people present at the case was predictable: all of them immediately wanted to talk to Abu Qatada and there was quite a lot of chaos for a few minutes. After a short while, however, all of us were led out of the court room and one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers stated to the press that he was quite happy with, as he put it, the just decision that had been taken by the court and he hoped for similar justice in September, when the verdict for the second case is expected. So Abu Qatada remained in prison for the moment, but he may have something to look forward to for now.