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Howard denies forcing minister into cancelling Haneef's visa

The Australian prime minister also denies leaking information to the media designed to taint the Indian doctor.

world Updated: Jul 24, 2007 18:30 IST

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday denied pressurising the immigration minister into cancelling the visa of Mohammed Haneef or leaking information to the media designed to taint the Indian doctor, charged with recklessly supporting a terrorist group.

Haneef was granted bail by a Brisbane magistrate last Monday but a few hours later Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews revoked his visa.

Although Andrews cited character issues, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile has admitted the revocation of Haneef's visa was designed to keep the hospital registrar in Australia while his court case is under way.

Howard said he had discussed Haneef's visa with Andrews and senior members of Cabinet, but had left it to the minister to decide on a course of action.

"We discussed it and it was discussed at a meeting of the National Security Committee of cabinet, but the final decision was taken by Kevin Andrews," Howard told a local TV channel in Melbourne.

"He exercised his discretion and we didn't seek to direct him. But often in these situations ... The minister will seek the views of his colleagues and then go away and make his or her decision, there's nothing unusual about that," Howard said.

The prime minister declined to comment on the credibility of the prosecution case against Haneef, which has been dogged by claim and counter-claim about the handling of the police investigation.

But Howard insisted his government was not behind a series of leaks intended to tarnish the defendant. "I haven't leaked any information. No member of the government, to my knowledge, has leaked any information."

The Prime Minister ridiculed Queensland Premier Peter Beattie's call for a Senate inquiry into the case, saying it was a matter for the courts.

"If (the police) do something that's wrong, well the courts will take account of that," Howard said adding "but for people in my position or Beattie's position to be running a partisan campaign on this, which he plainly is, is quite wrong and it's very unhelpful to the fight against terrorism in this country."

Howard expressed confidence in the Australian Federal Police and criticised Beattie for branding the police investigation akin to "Keystone Cops".

"The Labor Party is playing a double game on Haneef. They are saying through opposition leader Kevin Rudd that the matter is being handled correctly, yet Rudd has his agents like the Queensland Premier out there accusing the federal police," Howard told the ABC on Monday.

"To call the federal police Keystone Kops is disgraceful. The federal police are integral to the fight against terrorism in this country," Howard said.

Beattie responded by telling the program that he was simply raising issues he believed the government needed to explain. "Instead of answering the question, all they are doing is trying to vilify me or attack me personally. I think Australians need to have answers to these questions."

Two ministers in the Howard cabinet are also at odds over Canberra's reasons for revoking the visa of Haneef.

The Australian Deputy Prime Minister on Monday claimed the government withdrew the visa to prevent Haneef from leaving the country, contradicting Andrews's announcement last week that he had revoked the visa because the suspect had failed a character test.

"It was a decision that he (Andrews) took to ensure that that individual stayed in Australia," he said, adding "It's not a political arrest -- I mean none of the senior ministers nor the Prime Minister arrested the individual concerned," the Australian reported on Tuesday.

On Monday night, a spokeswoman for Andrews said "It's clear with regard to (Andrews's) decision that the decision was made on character grounds based on advice from the AFP and exercising his authority under the character section of the Migration Act."

Opposition Labor Party has also failed to escape criticism for its handling of the Haneef case, with party lawyers accusing Rudd of kowtowing to the Howard government over the case.

The attack from the Queensland Labor Lawyers Association came amid increasing disquiet among Labor backbenchers critical of the Opposition Leader's silence on inconsistencies in the prosecution case. However, they were unwilling to break party solidarity by being named.