Australian prosecutors free Indian doctor accused in U.K. attacks

Saturday, July 28, 2007

BRISBANE, Australia -- An Indian doctor was set free Friday after Australia's chief prosecutor said a charge linking him to failed bombings in Britain was a mistake.

Mohamed Haneef, 27, was released from prison in the eastern city of Brisbane more than three weeks after he was arrested at an airport as he was about to fly to India. Prosecutors withdrew the charge after a review of the evidence by the federal Director of Public Prosecutions Damian Bugg found that his office should never have recommended it.

"Mistakes are embarrassing. You're embarrassed if you do something wrong," Bugg told reporters in Canberra. "I'm disappointed that it's happened, and I will first thing next week try and obtain a better understanding of how it came about."

The withdrawn charge accused Haneef of providing reckless support to a terrorist organization. He could have faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The charge alleged he gave his cell phone SIM card to a cousin in Britain a year ago as he left the country for a hospital job in Australia.

That cousin, Sabeel Ahmed, 26, has been charged by British police with withholding information that could prevent an act of terrorism.

Ahmed's brother, Kafeel Ahmed, is believed to have set himself ablaze after crashing a car into Glasgow Airport and remains in a Scottish hospital with critical burns.

In Brisbane, prosecutor Alan MacSporran said authorities had erred in telling the court that Haneef's SIM card had been discovered inside the vehicle used to attack the Glasgow airport. The card was found in the possession of Sabeel Ahmed in Liverpool, more than 185 miles from the attack scene.

A second error was related to claims that Haneef had lived with the Ahmed brothers in Liverpool before moving to Australia last year.

Haneef has denied knowing anything about the British bomb plot, and told police he gave his SIM card to his cousin so he could take advantage of extra minutes left on the account.

He told police he was rushing to India to join his family because his daughter had been born a few days earlier by emergency Caesarean section.

Bugg and the chief investigator, Australian Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, told a news conference the case had been complicated by a 10-hour time difference between Australia and Britain, which hampered communications between investigators.

Keelty said Bugg's office had been under pressure to evaluate the evidence quickly, including phone and computer records, in the time police were allowed to detain Haneef without charge under Australia's counterterror laws.

"I in no way blame the prosecutor for getting it wrong; the fact is that he did get it wrong, but there's a lot of information he had to get across in a very short period of time," Keelty said.

A court ordered Haneef's release on bail last week, but Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews kept him in prison by canceling his visa on character grounds, based on information provided by the federal police.

Haneef is due to appeal the visa decision in court on Aug. 8. If his appeal fails, Haneef could be deported to India, an outcome he opposes.

His lawyer, Peter Russo, would not say where Haneef planned to live while the government reviews whether to reinstate his visa. Andrews said Haneef was free to stay where he liked so long as he reports daily to a government official.

The Gold Coast Hospital said Friday that Haneef's job as a junior doctor remained open if he regained his work visa.

Haneef's wife, Firdaus Arshiya, told reporters in Bangalore, India, that she hoped her husband would fly home within days.

"I'm happy he's been proved innocent," she said.

Associated Press Writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia contributed to this report.

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