A radical Islamist cleric described by prosecutors as a key al-Qaeda operative in Europe cannot be deported from Britain to Jordan to face terrorism charges, judges ruled yesterday in the latest twist in a protracted legal saga.
Abu Qatada will, instead, be released on bail today.
A senior judge at a special London court said there was a risk that evidence obtained using torture may be used against Qatada and that he may not receive a fair trial in Jordan.
The case of Qatada - a Jordanian cleric of Palestinian origin described as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe" - has been a thorn in the side of successive British governments.
Britain says videotapes of his sermons influenced Mohammed Atta, the ring leader of the September 11 US terrorist attacks.
The court ruled there was a "real risk" that evidence obtained by torture from two other men could be used against Qatada in a Jordanian court.
The ruling said British interior minister Theresa May had been wrong not to revoke an earlier deportation ruling against Qatada, and allowed his appeal.
The decision is a setback for May and the Conservative-led administration, both keen to foster an image of competence and decisiveness on security issues.
May's department said in a statement it strongly disagreed with the ruling and would seek leave to appeal.
Jordan has convicted Qatada in his absence of sending encouragement to militants there who were planning two bomb attacks in 1999 and 2000.
Robin Tam, a lawyer for the British government, told the court that Qatada "remains a man who poses an enormous risk to national security".
Britain had argued that a 2005 deal with Jordan and more recent diplomatic assurances would ensure Qatada gets a fair trial there.
It had maintained that the agreements with Jordan were sufficient to overcome a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Qatada could not be deported because of the possibility that a trial there could use torture evidence.
Qatada has previously been accused of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the US over the September 11 attacks, and with shoebomber Richard Reid.
Audio recordings of the cleric's sermons had been found among the belongings of some of the September 11 hijackers.