By Gilbert Reilhac and Tim Castle
STRASBOURG/LONDON (Reuters) - A Jordanian cleric once described as Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe" has lodged a last-minute appeal against his deportation from Britain, a European court source said on Wednesday, potentially thwarting British hopes of a swift eviction.
Britain dismissed the move by radical preacher Abu Qatada as a delaying tactic, saying it would oppose the appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, in the latest chapter in a long-running saga over his deportation which has embarrassed London.
Britain rearrested Qatada on Tuesday and said it would resume a bid to send him to Jordan to face terrorism charges after gaining assurances from Amman that he would receive a fair trial.
Qatada's appeal arrived at the European court by fax just one hour before a Tuesday midnight deadline and was being treated as a priority, a source at the Strasbourg court said.
Britain, which is aiming to evict Qatada by April 30, could not deport Qatada while the appeal to the court's Grand Chamber was being considered, the source added.
The British government has been trying to get rid of Qatada for more than a decade in the face of numerous legal challenges.
The government has been resisting pressure from politicians to defy the European court and deport the cleric before London hosts the Olympic Games in July and August.
Qatada had been under virtual house arrest at his family home in London since February, when he was freed from a British prison after a court said his detention without trial was unlawful.
ON A PLANE
A judge at the same specialist court refused Qatada bail on Tuesday, saying the possibility of imminent deportation had "significantly increased" the risk he would abscond.
Judges at the European court had ruled in January that Qatada would not receive a fair trial in Jordan because evidence against him might have been obtained through the use of torture.
His last-minute appeal is against part of that ruling.
Britain said it believed Qatada had left it a day too late to make his request to Strasbourg and would oppose the appeal on the grounds that a three-month deadline after the January ruling actually expired at midnight on Monday.
However, British Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May said it was possible the European court might use its discretion to consider the appeal despite its late arrival.
"This (appeal) was made outside of the deadline, it is a delaying tactic. When we have been through this process at the European court, then we will resume deportation," May told BBC television.
"I want Abu Qatada to be on a plane to Jordan, and I know that is what the British public want," she added.
Qatada was described as bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe" by Spanish high court judge and human rights investigator Baltasar Garzon in 2004.
Britain says videotapes of his sermons were found in a German apartment used by three of the men who carried out al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Qatada, who Jordan convicted in his absence of involvement in terrorist plots, denies belonging to al Qaeda.
Lawyers and human rights advocates in Jordan say Qatada was convicted in his absence at a time when the powerful security forces were arresting hundreds of Islamists without regard for legal safeguards or evidence.
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage in Paris; Editing by Angus MacSwan)