Deadlines and deportations: what next in Qatada farce?
Efforts to deport the radical cleric hinge on whether the Home Office got its dates right
THE LATEST efforts to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan have descended into "farce" and "chaos" according to opponents of the government, amid a furious row over missed deadlines and the right to appeal.
The row centres on when exactly an appeal deadline passed at the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR). The Home Office insists that it was midnight on Monday 16 April, but Qatada appears to have successfully lodged an appeal on Tuesday night that could delay his deportation by many months.
What is Abu Qatada appealing against?
The ECHR ruled on 17 January this year that Qatada could not be deported to Jordan to stand trial on terror charges because there were reasonable fears that evidence obtained by torture might be used against him. As The Guardian reported at the time, the judges said this would amount to a "flagrant denial of justice".
However, within the ruling, the judges also stated that Qatada did not, in their view, face being tortured himself if he returned to Jordan. It is on this part of the ruling that Qatada's lawyers have based their appeal.
Did Qatada's lawyers meet the deadline or not?
The ECHR ruling was handed down at 11 am local time on 17 January. As the BBC reports, the Home Office believes the three-month clock started ticking immediately, and that midnight on April 16 was therefore the deadline for any appeal from either side.
When Theresa May told MPs on Tuesday that she had received fresh guarantees from Jordan that Abu Qatada would face a fair trial and that "he could now be deported" she was assuming the deadline had passed.
However, on Wednesday the ECHR said that the deadline for the cleric's appeal had been midnight on Tuesday 17 April, and that his lawyers had indeed lodged their appeal an hour before the deadline passed.
So, who got their sums wrong?
"I am sure that we got the deadline right," says Theresa May, "because you look at the treaty, and what the treaty says is that it is three months from the date of the judgment."
However, a spokeswoman for the court in Strasbourg said: "We cannot comment on the view taken by the UK authorities about when the deadline expired. The court's case law says that a referral request must be received by the court within three months from the date of the chamber judgment."
As Dominic Casciani of the BBC reports, while some of the Strasbourg court's procedures support the view that midnight on 16 April was the deadline, the court's officials insist the deadline was midnight on 17 April. And, as Casciani says, "It was, after all, their deadline to set".
What are people saying now?
In a nutshell, if government ministers jumped the gun by moving against Qatada 24 hours too soon, they will be left with egg all over their face.
Home affairs select committee chairman Keith Vaz said the situation was "almost farcical" and shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described it as "chaotic".
Tory backbencher David Davis blamed civil servants at the Home Office which had "dropped the Home Secretary and her ministers in it".
The situation was even described as an "omnishambles" on Twitter – the word of the moment, first used by foul-mouthed civil servant Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It, and already employed by Ed Miliband yesterday to describe the Budget fallout.
What happens next?
Government lawyers have written to the EHCR insisting they are correct about the 16 April deadline, while Justice Secretary Ken Clarke appeared on BBC Radio's Today programme this morning to insist the issue of the appeal was a "procedural wrangle" and "not a big deal".
A panel of five judges will now decide if the case should go to the ECHR's Grand Chamber. The BBC quotes a court spokeswoman saying the panel "always considers the timing of the referral request" and decides whether it met the deadline.
Hopes that the Strasbourg judges will turn the appeal away on those grounds appear hopeless, however.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, from the Law Society, told the Today programme the government had blundered. "The procedure for appealing against a decision of the Strasbourg court is well laid down and what Mr Qatada's lawyers are doing is perfectly within that procedure," she said.
She added that the whole process was likely to take months "at the very least" because of the amount of legal preparation and negotiation involved.
As The Daily Telegraph commented: "After all the lofty debates about human rights and tough talk of protecting national security, the nine-year battle to remove 'Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe' had descended into a grim farce over a calendar."