AMMAN (Reuters) – Jordan’s State Security Court has given al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al Zarqawi and three other men charged with taking part in a thwarted chemical attack 10 days to surrender or be tried in absentia.
Jordanian papers carried the court’s ultimatum on Wednesday. Nine other defendants are already in police custody awaiting a trial expected to be held soon.
Jordanian-born Zarqawi, who has a $25 million (13.3 million pounds) U.S. bounty on his head, continues to elude U.S. forces in Iraq where he is the number one target as U.S.-led forces seek to pacify Iraq.
His supporters have claimed some of the bloodiest suicide bombings and hostage beheadings in Iraq.
Jordanian prosecutors say a group, operating under the name Kataeb al-Tawhid (Tawhid Brigades), planned to launch attacks on targets including the U.S. embassy and Jordanian intelligence headquarters in trucks laden with chemical explosives.
The defendants, who include Syrians, were shown on state television in April confessing to the plot and saying they were ordered to attack by Zarqawi.
Defence lawyers have said the confessions were extracted under duress and that the case, introduced with much fanfare by the pro-U.S. government last April, was being pursued by over-zealous prosecutors prodded by top security officials.
Jordan’s state security prosecutor lodged four charges against the defendants including “conspiring to carry out terrorist acts” and they were formally charged last month.
The conspiracy charge along with that of making explosives to use illegally carries the death sentence. The other charges of illegal possession of weapons and automatic weapons carry a 15-year prison term.
Zarqawi has already been sentenced to death in Jordan for the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Amman in October, 2002. Newspapers said that if the four defendants not currently in custody did not turn themselves in, the government would seize their assets.
On Wednesday, Arabic television Al Jazeera quoted family members as saying Jordanian security forces had detained a nephew of Zarqawi and one of his brothers-in-law without charge.
A Jordanian government spokeswoman said she was checking the report.
Amman’s close ties with Washington and a 1994 peace deal with Israel are unpopular with many in Jordan, and there is support for Islamist militant groups in some areas.