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Qatada acquitted by court in Jordan

Radical cleric Abu Qatada, who was deported from the UK last July, has been released from prison after being acquitted by a court in Jordan of plotting attacks on Americans and Israelis.

The ruling capped a lengthy legal battle for the 53-year-old cleric who has been described as a one-time lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, although in recent months he has reportedly emerged as a harsh critic of the Islamic State militant group.

Qatada was deported from Britain to Jordan last year after years of fighting extradition.

Hours after the ruling, Qatada was released from prison and was a free man, his defence lawyers Husein Mubaidin and Ghazi Althunibat said.

The three-judge panel unanimously acquitted Qatada "because of the lack of convincing charges against him", said Judge Ahmed Qattarneh.

Qatada sat on a bench in a cage in the courtroom, largely blocked from view by black-clad riot police. When the verdict was announced he briefly punched his left fist in the air.

Several family members jumped up from their seats, one calling out "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great".

"It's been a long time," said a female relative, apparently referring to the cleric's time in custody.

The case had been tried in Jordan's State Security court, but with civilian judges.

Qatada was charged with involvement in plans to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan in 2000 - the so-called "millennium plot".

Separately, he was acquitted in June in another case, a foiled 1999 plan to attack an American school in Amman.

He had pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges in the proceedings against him.

Reacting to the verdict, Britain's immigration and security minister, James Brokenshire, said "it is right that the due process of law has taken place in Jordan".

He said Qatada had been deported from Britain because courts there determined he posed a threat to national security.

"Abu Qatada remains subject to a deportation order and a United Nations travel ban. He is not coming back to the UK," Mr Brokenshire said.

West Bank-born Qatada fled a Jordanian crackdown on militants, arriving in Britain on a forged passport in 1993. He was granted asylum a year later, but eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities.

He had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison on both Jordanian charges. But on his extradition to Jordan last July, those sentences were suspended and he was ordered to stand a new trial.

Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, had questioned the impartiality of Jordan's military court, an issue that delayed his deportation from Britain for years. But last June, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture, paving the way for his extradition.

While in custody in Jordan, Qatada had emerged as an influential critic of Islamic State militants who have killed thousands of people, beheaded Westerners - including two American journalists - and captured large areas of Syria and northern and western Iraq in a blitz this summer.

In a court appearance earlier this month, Qatada said he is certain the Islamic State group will be vanquished, adding that "they have the ability to kill and destroy, not to build".

His comments reflected the bitter rivalry between al Qaida and the Islamic State group, which has rejected al Qaida's central authority. The al Qaida branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, has fought the Islamic State.

Qatada's criticism has given legitimacy to the struggle against the Islamic State group, said Fawaz Gerges, a Britain-based expert on Islamic militants, speaking before the verdict.

"The fact that the Jordanian authorities are allowing him (Abu Qatada) to make statements shows the importance of his voice at this particular junction in the struggle against Daesh," said Mr Gerges, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Qatada was given a hero's welcome in the Nazzal neighbourhood of the Jordanian capital Amman after being released.

He walked up several flights of an outdoor stairway to his family home, thronged by journalists and supporters.

Qatada refused to answer questions about religion and politics, asking for privacy.

He briefly emerged from his home with his tearful mother, Aisha, holding her close.

"This is my mother. I missed her," he said.

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