LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has signed a new legal treaty with Jordan in the hope of being able to deport a radical cleric accused of being Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe" later this year, the Home Secretary said on Wednesday.
The British government has for years been unable to deport Abu Qatada back to his native Jordan, where he is wanted on terrorism charges, because judges have said evidence obtained through torture could be used against him.
The saga has been embarrassing for the Conservative-led government, which wants to appear tough on security and immigration, and in particular for Home Secretary Theresa May, who has been tipped as a future party leader.
A year ago, she said she was confident that Abu Qatada, whose sermons were found in a Hamburg flat used by some of those who carried out the September 11 attacks on the United States, would "soon" be on a plane out of the country for good, but judges have ruled otherwise.
"I have signed a comprehensive mutual legal assistance agreement with Jordan," May told parliament, a day after a court rejected the government's latest appeal of a judicial decision to block Abu Qatada's extradition to Jordan.
"The agreement also includes a number of fair trial guarantees ... I believe these guarantees will provide the courts with the assurance that Qatada will not face evidence that might have been obtained by torture."
The treaty is expected to be ratified by the Jordanian and British parliaments by the end of June, but May said it could still take several months to secure Abu Qatada's deportation.
Once described by a Spanish judge as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe", Qatada has been in and out of jail since first being arrested in 2001, and was last month sent back to prison for breaching his bail conditions.
May's lawyers have described him as a "truly dangerous" individual, a point judges do not dispute, but despite assurances from Jordan they fear a "flagrant denial of justice" if Abu Qatada were returned there for a retrial.
The use of evidence obtained through torture would breach the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory, prompting speculation that Britain may ditch the treaty to get rid of the cleric.
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday Britain was looking at "every option" to deport the Jordanian, and did not rule out withdrawing from the convention.
Such a move would delight Cameron's increasingly anti-Europe centre-right Conservative Party, but would dismay his left-leaning pro-Europe Liberal Democrat junior partners in government. It would also anger human rights campaigners.
The opposition Labour party blamed Abu Qatada's continued presence in Britain on legal missteps.
"In the past, the home secretary has overstated the evidence, overstated her legal position, and overstated her legal strategy, which has not worked," Labour interior affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Alison Williams)