A Jordanian military court on Thursday acquitted al-Qaeda-linked preacher Abu Qatada of terrorism charges over a foiled 1999 plot to attack an American school in the country's capital, Amman.
The military's State Security Court in Amman announced it found 53-year-old Abu Qatada innocent for lack of evidence against him. The Muslim preacher, who was deported from Britain last year to face a retrial in his native Jordan, had pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
Separately, the court postponed its ruling on a second set of terrorism charges against the cleric, involving plots in 2000 to attack Israelis, Americans and other Westerners in Jordan, and said it would deliver its verdict in that case on Sept. 7.
In both cases, Abu Qatada was convicted in absentia years ago and sentenced to life in prison. But on his extradition to Jordan last July, those sentences were suspended under Jordanian law and he was ordered to stand a new trial.
As the ruling was read in the courtroom, Abu Qatada's family and relatives erupted into cheers. The women embraced and kissed one another. Abu Qatada smiled and waved from inside the defendants' cage.
"I think that justice has taken its place here today," Abu Qatada's lawyer, Ghazi Thneibat, told reporters after the ruling but declined to comment on the postponement of the verdict in the second case.
"We are happy," said Um Ahmed, Abu Qatada's sister. "But I want him to leave with us."
The cleric is to remain in detention in Jordan pending the second, upcoming verdict.
During his time in custody so far in Jordan, he has publicized his militant ideology, advising foreign fighters to remain in Syria to battle the growing Shia influence there and urging suicide attacks in Lebanon against Shia targets.
Earlier on in the proceedings against him, the cleric 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 aimed at easing those worries, paving the way for his extradition.
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaeda figure in Europe who had close ties to the late Osama bin Laden.
Britain accused him of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric's sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Abu Qatada arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 after fleeing a Jordanian government crackdown on militants. He was granted asylum in Britain a year later, but he eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities, which allegedly included raising funds to finance terror plots in Jordan.
Britain's Immigration and Security Minister, James Brokenshire, said after the ruling in Amman that the cleric's "retrial in Jordan has been made possible thanks to this [British] government's determination to successfully deport him from the U.K."
Because of the deportation order, Abu Qatada will never be able to return to Britain, he said.
"While the courts in Jordan have acquitted [Abu] Qatada of one of the two charges against him, it is right the due process of law is allowed to take place in his own country," Brokenshire said. "We await a verdict on the remaining charge."