CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian authorities dropped terrorism charges against an Indian doctor on Friday, saying there was little chance of a conviction over his connection with a failed car bomb plot in Britain.
The Australian government said it would seek further legal advice on whether Dr Mohamed Haneef should now be deported, but released him from jail while his immigration status is clarified.
Australia’s chief prosecutor, Damian Bugg, decided to drop the charges after weeks of damaging media leaks and growing public criticism about the lack of strong evidence against the doctor.
“On my view of this matter, a mistake has been made,” Bugg told reporters in Canberra.
Haneef, 27, had been charged with recklessly supporting terrorism by providing a relative in Britain with his mobile phone SIM card.
He was detained by Australian police on July 2 as he was about to leave Australia for India and was questioned over his links to those suspected of planning a June car bomb plot in Britain.
Haneef left jail in a blue van with immigration officials on Friday after 25 days in custody, but did not return to his former flat in the Queensland state as his rental lease had expired.
His lawyer, Peter Russo, said Haneef was “quite upbeat and relaxed” and would remain patient while he fought to recover his visa.
Police in Britain have charged three people over the car bomb attacks, including Haneef’s second cousin Sabeel Ahmed, who is accused of failing to disclose information that could have prevented an attack.
Another of Haneef’s second cousins, Kafeel Ahmed, remains in hospital after being badly burned when a jeep was driven into an airport terminal in Glasgow and set ablaze.
Haneef said he left his mobile phone SIM card with Sabeel in Liverpool in mid-2006, when Haneef left Britain to work in Australia.
Prosecutors told an Australian court that Haneef’s SIM card was found in the burning jeep in Glasgow, although prosecutors on Friday agreed the SIM card was found with Sabeel, as Haneef had told them all along.
Haneef’s wife, Firdaus Arshiya, welcomed the change of heart by Australian authorities.
“I am extremely happy that he has finally been proven innocent,” she told reporters gathered outside her home in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.
She said Haneef’s family wanted him to return to India on an ordinary visa, rather than be deported.
E. Ahamed, Indian junior foreign minister, told Indian television his government supported Haneef’s visa request.
“As Haneef is a sincere, very honest person, and if there are no charges against him, he has requested a visa and we also support his request,” he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the case would not harmed Australia-India relations.
The case has put the Australian Federal Police (AFP) under extreme pressure.
AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty has said about 300 investigators had the equivalent of 36,000 filing cabinets of information to sort through in the Haneef case.
Keelty on Friday defended his department’s handling of the case, and said the investigation in Australia was ongoing.
“We don’t intend to scale down the investigation. Our obligation is to protect the Australian community against any threat of a terrorist event. That is our job,” Keelty told reporters in Canberra.
In Bangalore, the views were very different.
“It is great news. What agony the family has undergone. They should sue the Australian government,” said Iqbal, a young Muslim student in Frazer Town, a locality in Bangalore where Haneef’s mother lives.
Suresh, a local sales representative, was also outraged.
“You can’t make an innocent man a terrorist. Not only Haneef’s reputation but also Bangalore’s image has been affected,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla in New Delhi
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