Europe’s human rights judges are unlikely ever to reveal whether or not British Home Secretary Theresa May was right to say that Abu Qatada’s appeal was made too late, MPs heard today.
The ruling on the Jordanian terror suspect’s bid to appeal will be made by a panel of five judges but they do not usually reveal any of the reasons for their decision, Mrs May said.
The revelation that the panel will simply announce whether or not Qatada’s appeal against extradition can go ahead means the row over the deadline may never be cleared up.
The confusion, which centres on whether the three-month appeal deadline from the court’s original decision on January 17 expired on the night of April 16 or 17, risks seeing the radical cleric freed and back on Britain’s streets within weeks.
But it now looks unlikely that anyone will be able to say whether the Government’s interpretation of the deadline was right or wrong.
The panel considering whether to allow the appeal to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will look at several factors along with whether the referral was made in time, Mrs May told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.
But the exact reason for a referral being accepted or rejected is not usually given and, as the final arbiters, the judges could even decide to accept a late appeal, even though this would be against the court’s guidance, she added.
The Home Secretary also failed six times to directly answer whether she had any email, letter or document from the court saying when the deadline was.
But she insisted she had “unambiguous legal advice” from the Government’s lawyers in both the Home Office and the Foreign Office that the deadline expired on the night of April 16.
And she denied the situation had descended into farce.
She said: “I don’t consider it a farce for a Government Minister to take unambiguous legal advice, to act on that unambiguous legal advice, and to take action at the first possible opportunity to resume the deportation of an individual who is considered to be a danger to our national security.”
Asked about the judges’ decision on the deadline, she added: “I understand that the panel of judges do not give their reasons why they do or do not accept or reject a referral.
“They would be looking at a number of issues, the deadline and other aspects.
“I understand it is normal practice that the decision that will come out is simply a decision as to whether or not the referral has been accepted.”
Mrs May also said she could not rule out that the panel would accept a late referral “in exceptional circumstances”, adding that she understood they had done so in the past.
The Home Secretary also admitted there was “speculation about mixed messages on the Monday night (April 16) and the Tuesday morning”, but insisted the advice she was given was clear and consistent.
“All the advice I’ve been given has been the same,” she added.
Mrs May said she had a dozen letters, all relating to other cases, which backed the Home Office interpretation of the deadline.
“The advice I have received has been consistent. The advice I have received remained consistent and remains consistent until this day.”
Mrs May also told the MPs on the committee that the Government has written to Europe’s human rights court setting out why Qatada’s appeal should fail.
It was out of time, the original ruling did not depart from case law and no general interest reasons were raised, she said.
She added that there was another reason highlighted in the Government’s response, but gave no details.
Mrs May added: “I’m very clear that the assurances we’ve received will enable us to deport Abu Qatada.”
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Mrs May’s comments showed she “has taken significant risks which may make it harder not easier to deport Abu Qatada”.
“The Home Secretary made clear she did not get any assurances from the court that said the deadline was Monday April 16,” Ms Cooper said.
“Nor did she contact the court on Monday after the Home Office were told by journalists that the European Court was saying the date was Tuesday instead.
“The Home Secretary also admitted that she was ’aware of speculation’ over the deadline on Monday.
“Why then did she still take the risk and go ahead with the statement? Why did she not wait 24 hours so there could be no shadow of a doubt, and so she did not play into the hands of Abu Qatada’s lawyers?”
“If the Home Secretary knew there was a significant risk over the deadline, but failed to check with the court and decided to plough ahead on the wrong date, that is a serious failure of judgment on a case which has significant national security implications.”