LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers from across the political spectrum voiced anger Tuesday at a court decision to release an imprisoned extremist cleric, saying the man described as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida figures could be free during the London Olympics.
The British government accuses Abu Qatada of advising militants and raising money for terrorist attacks, but its long-running effort to deport him to Jordan was recently dealt a serious setback by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which ruled last month that the 51-year-old could not be sent there because of the risk that evidence obtained through torture would be used against him.
Meanwhile, Abu Qatada, who has been imprisoned in the U.K. for more than six years without ever being charged with a crime here, was granted bail by a British court this week and could be released within days.
That prompted indignation in Britain's House of Commons, where Home Secretary Theresa May promised to keep fighting to deport or imprison the preacher ahead of the Olympic Games and the country's Diamond Jubilee — which marks Queen Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne.
"The right place for a terrorist is in a prison cell. The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell far away from Britain," she said. "That's why we will do everything we can within the existing legal regime to deport Qatada and we are doing everything we can to reform that regime to avoid these cases in future."
Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, a member of Britain's opposition Labour Party, said he wanted the government to be in a position "where we can deport Abu Qatada so he is not in this country when the Olympics come," while several Conservative lawmakers urged May to ignore the European Court judgment's and deport the preacher in defiance of international law.
"You could become a national hero if you leave this chamber, pick up the phone and order him to be sent back to Jordan tonight," said Tory lawmaker Peter Bone.
Jason McCartney asked May what the sanction would be "if we just ignored the European Court and put national security first," offering to help pay any fine out of his own pocket.
Outside the chamber, the anger was palpable.
"International law is an ass," lawmaker Bob Stewart told the BBC, describing Abu Qatada as a fanatical Islamist at war with British society.
"He's laughing at our weakness," Stewart said. "This man should not be allowed to be released in our country."
Abu Qatada — whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman — has been described in both Spanish and U.K. courts as one of Europe's leading al-Qaida figures. He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of terrorist offenses related to two alleged bomb plots in 1999 and 2000, and he would be expected to face a retrial there if deported from Britain.
A Palestinian-Jordanian citizen, Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in 1993 and was detained in 2002 under anti-terrorism laws that at the time allowed suspected terrorists to be held in jail without charge.
Although Abu Qatada was released in 2005 when the unpopular law was overturned, he was kept under surveillance and arrested again within months. Following the European Court's decision to block his extradition, Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal granted him bail, saying he couldn't be held in custody indefinitely without trial.
British Attorney General Dominic Grieve told the BBC that he could see why British officials were angry about the judgment but said that people could not simply be imprisoned forever.
"We obviously don't have indefinite internment without trial in this country," he said. "Individuals enjoy the right to liberty and government is bound by the rule of law and has to observe it."
He added: "The government is obviously very concerned about this case and very much wishes to see Abu Qatada deported to Jordan and, when he is in Jordan, tried fairly if the Jordanian authorities wish to put him on trial."
Many British newspapers Tuesday supported the government and voiced anger about Abu Qatada's impending release.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper said the case "epitomizes the waning power of the British state to decide who can and cannot remain in this country," while the Daily Mail said the ruling meant there would be a "terrorist on the school run," referring to the fact that Abu Qatada would be allowed to walk his children to school.