The terrorism trial of the radical Islamic preacher Abu Qatada lasted several months, but in the end his fate rested on this one single moment, writes Adam Coogle.
Jordan’s State Security Court, mostly empty during the long, interminable weeks of legal arguments and delays, was packed with camera crews and family members on June 26.
The chamber fell silent as Judge Ahmed al-Qatarneh prepared to announce whether in reaching a verdict, he would consider a decade-old confession from Abu Qatada’s alleged accomplice that British courts and the European Court of Human Rights feared had been extracted under torture.
The entire trial – a retrial over an allegation Abu Qatada was involved in 1998 terrorism plot — hinged on this one decision. (He faces a separate ongoing trial before the same court for his alleged involvement in a different bomb plot in 2000; a verdict is expected in September). This trial followed Abu Qatada’s high profile extradition battle with the UK that had gone on for many years.
The judge read his page-long edict, announcing that the confession would stand.
As the judge spoke, I exchanged looks with others who were there. This could only mean one thing. Abu Qatada would surely be found guilty.
A journalist friend turned to me and mouthed the word ‘mouabad’ — “life sentence” in Arabic. I nodded in silent agreement.
So imagine the reaction when Judge al-Qatarneh then announced that Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada, was “not guilty” of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
The court erupted. People stood up in disbelief. His family started hugging. Abu Qatada, sitting in a cage, smiled briefly before he was swamped by TV cameras.
By all accounts, this was an unexpected decision, but the acquittal has done little to diminish long-standing concerns over Jordan’s record on torture.
At first glance, the acquittal might suggest that Abu Qatada received a fair trial, and that concerns that Human Rights Watch and others raised about the case were unfounded. Not so. While Abu Qatada was acquitted, the use of the confession makes a mockery of the “diplomatic assurances” Jordan gave the UK before his deportation in 2013.
Abu Qatada, who’d already been convicted in absentia once for his alleged role in the 1998 plot to bomb targets in Amman, fought a 10-year court battle to stave off deportation from the UK with courts in London and Strasbourg ruling he could not be sent back due to the real risk that the Jordanian courts would allow evidence obtained by torture against him. He only agreed to return once Jordan signed a treaty with the UK promising that its courts would not admit evidence obtained through coercion.
The statement admitted by the Jordanian courts in 1999 and again at the preacher’s recent trial – and the only piece of evidence directly implicating Abu Qatada in the bomb plot – was the confession of his alleged co-conspirator Abd al-Nasser al-Khamaiseh. The reasons the courts gave to support the legality of the confession, in both 1999 and 2014, were chiefly that the medical report performed on al-Khamaiseh following his detention in 1998 did not reveal injuries or bodily harm, and that it was given directly to the State Security Court (SSC) military prosecutor rather than officers of Jordan’s intelligence agency – the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), whom al-Khamaiseh accused of torturing him before he confessed.
These arguments are far from convincing. Human Rights Watch has documented the close relationship between the SSC military prosecutor and the GID – the former maintained an office inside the main GID headquarters at the time, and former detainees have told Human Rights Watch that officers move them back and forth between GID interrogators and prosecutors until the desired confession is obtained. Detainees also say that only doctors assigned to the GID performed their medical examinations, and they were refused independent medical exams while in detention. Judges in the Abu Qatada trial did not address these concerns, which were also shared by the European Court of Human Rights, in their verdict.
The State Security Court appears to have violated key procedural safeguards found in Jordan’s treaty with the UK, which stipulates that if there is “a real risk” that a statement was obtained through torture, it cannot not be admitted as trial evidence unless the prosecutor first proves “beyond any doubt” that it was not coerced. During Abu Qatada’s trial judges did not ask the military prosecutor to prove the legality of al-Khamaiseh’s confession prior to presenting it to the court, but rather accepted it into the record without question and ruled on its admissibility only at the end of the trial.
Perhaps most telling, the verdict states that al-Khamaiseh’s confession could not be disallowed, because previous 1999 rulings of the SSC and an appeals court had rendered its admissibility res judicata – a previously-decided matter that cannot be raised again in court. This seems to suggest that to the court, the UK-Jordan treaty has no impact whatsoever on what evidence was admitted in Abu Qatada’s case.
Ultimately, Abu Qatada was found not guilty because al-Khamaiseh’s confession was not supported by other statements or evidence, as required by Jordanian law. But the fact that the confession was admitted as evidence at all shows just how worthless the treaty really was. It’s clear that “diplomatic assurances” from countries with poor records on torture aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch