A Jordanian court has acquitted Salafist cleric Abu Qatada of charges that he provided spiritual and material support for a plot to attack Westerners in Jordan’s capital during New Year celebrations in 2000, judicial sources and Abu Qatada’s lawyer said Wednesday.
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Othman, was accused of involvement in the so-called millennium bombing plot to target tourists in Amman. Jordan's state security court ruled on Wednesday that those charges lacked sufficient evidence.
"Abu Qatada has been released from prison and is now on his way home," a judicial source said.
Smiling and dressed in brown prison fatigues, the 51-year-old cleric waved to his family in the courtroom after the verdict was announced, a witness said. Judge Ahmad Qatarneh said the ruling was unanimous.
Abu Qatada was acquitted in June in a separate case on charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism against Western diplomatic sites across Amman. That acquittal was also based on a lack of evidence.
He was extradited from the U.K., where he had sought asylum, after a lengthy legal process last year. The European Union Human Rights Court had overruled the U.K.'s first attempt to deport the cleric on grounds he wouldn't receive a fair trial in Jordan and over concerns about the possible admission of testimony obtained under torture.
He had previously been sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to carry out attacks against U.S. and other targets inside U.S.-allied Jordan.
On Wednesday, the court upheld a confession that had been instrumental in that absentia conviction, even though his defense said it had been extracted under torture.
Despite misgivings about the ruling that upheld the confession, Abu Qatada's lawyer, Ghazi Thunaibat, said "justice had prevailed."
His release comes at a crucial time, as Jordan backs the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in airstrikes on Syrian territory.
Abu Qatada has openly criticized ISIL atrocities and objects to the group's declaring an Islamic caliphate in the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, a bold move that has divided extremist cells and alienated many Al-Qaeda supporters such as Abu Qatada.
In July, he wrote in a 21-page document posted online that the announcement of a caliphate by ISIL was “void and meaningless because it was not approved by jihadists in other parts of the world.”
According to Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from Amman, some believe Jordan is “trying to send a message that those like Abu Qatada, the Salafi leaders who are not promoting ISIL, not trying to recruit for ISIL and are not ISIL sympathizers" will be tolerated.
“But those who try to do otherwise, who try to promote ISIL, will come under heavy crackdown by the government,” she said.
Al Jazeera and wire services