Abu Qatada's deportation has been put on hold, in an acutely embarrassing development for the home secretary. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
A furious row over missed deadlines has broken out between London and Strasbourg after the European court of human rights dramatically halted an attempt to deport the radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada less than 24 hours after it was ordered by the home secretary.
Theresa May ordered Qatada's arrest and detention on Tuesday in the belief that the three-month deadline for appeals to be lodged against the original Strasbourg ruling on the case on 17 January had passed at midnight on Monday. But it emerged on Wednesday that Qatada's lawyers had lodged an 11th-hour appeal on Tuesday night, halting moves by the Home Office to press ahead with the deportation proceedings.
The development, on the eve of the British-organised prestigious Council of Europe conference in Brighton to reform the working of the European court of human rights, is embarrassing to the home secretary, who told the Commons on Tuesday that Qatada could be sent back to Jordan "in full compliance with the law".
But the European court of human rights (ECHR) insisted the deadline was actually midnight on Tuesday and accepted the appeal application from Qatada's lawyers at 11pm on Tuesday night.
An ECHR spokeswoman said this meant the legal block on the radical cleric's deportation to Jordan remained in force until a panel of European judges decided whether the case should go to the court's grand chamber on appeal. No date has yet been fixed for that hearing.
The ECHR spokeswoman confirmed to the Guardian that it believed the deadline was actually midnight on Tuesday, and not Monday night as was assumed by the Home Office.
"We did receive a referral to the grand chamber from the applicant at 11pm and it will be decided by a panel of judges at a date to be fixed," she said.
But the Home Office strongly disputes this, insisting the deadline for appeals to the original Strasbourg ruling passed after three months on midnight on Monday 16 April, lifting the "rule 39" injunction and finally clearing the way for his deportation.
"Qatada has no right to refer the case to the grand chamber of the European court of human rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday night. His case should be heard in British courts, as the home secretary outlined to parliament yesterday. In the meantime, he remains in custody," said a Home Office spokesman.
A Strasbourg spokeswoman later said that an appeal request had to be received by the court within three calendar months of the date of the delivery of the judgment: "It is always open to the other party in the case to argue that a referral request is not made within the time limit.
"One of the questions that the grand chamber panel will have to decide is whether the request was sent within the time limit set out in article 43 of the convention. We cannot comment on the view taken by the UK authorities about when the deadline expired."
Article 43 adds that the three calendar months are not interrupted by bank holidays.
May claimed the last-minute appeal was no more than a delaying tactic by Qatada's lawyers and insisted it was out of time.
"There is no question that we have broken the law in arresting Abu Qatada. I am absolutely sure we got the deadline date correct," she said.
"We believe the appeal is outside the deadline. His lawyers only decided to lodge this appeal after they saw the strength of our case at the special immigration appeals commission to resume his deportation to Jordan."
She said that once the issue was resolved the deportation proceedings would be resumed. "I don't think anybody should be surprised at the use of these delaying tactics," she said.
But Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said Qatada's deportation was becoming "chaotic and almost farcical".
He said: "It's very important that [May] should clarify this as soon as possible by making a statement to the house after she knows what the facts are."
The Conservative backbencher David Davis said the fresh block on Qatada's deportation was embarrassing for the home secretary. He said he did not blame May but said the Home Office had "dropped the home secretary and her ministers in it."
The former shadow home secretary said he hoped Qatada was not released on bail but remained in custody in maximum security conditions.
The Labour justice spokesman Chris Bryant said it showed May had failed to check all the relevant details in the runup to Qatada's arrest.
"All of us want Abu Qatada to be deported to Jordan; we also want the home secretary to go through the proper processes, abide by the law so we don't end up having to pay compensation to this ghastly man – but what seems to have happened is that the very basic details weren't done before the big fanfare of the announcement yesterday."http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/18/abu-qatada-deportation-human-rights