- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft says he regrets making comments about a pending terrorism case a federal judge said could have compromised the rights of those accused to a fair trial, and promised to “make every effort” in the future to avoid making similar statements.

Mr. Ashcroft’s apology came in response to a strongly worded ruling this week by U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen in Detroit, who said the attorney general “exhibited a distressing lack of care” when he made public statements despite a gag order in a case involving four accused members of a sleeper cell of terrorists planning to attack U.S. targets.

Judge Rosen stopped short of charging Mr. Ashcroft with contempt, but said a public rebuke was necessary.

“Despite his unquestioned duty to address the nation on matters of public concern, and his more specific responsibility to keep the nation informed on the war on terror, the attorney general has an equally vital and unyielding obligation, as the nation’s chief prosecutor, to ensure that defendants are accorded a fair trial guaranteed to them under our constitution,” the judge wrote.

Defense attorneys for three of those charged in the case — Karim Koubriti, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi and Ahmed Hannan — said Mr. Ashcroft violated the gag order when he made public comments in October 2001 saying the three men were suspected of having knowledge of the September 11 attacks.

The Justice Department later retracted the statement.

Mr. Ashcroft, in a statement, said he had a responsibility to keep the American people informed of the Justice Department’s progress against terrorism, while at the same time “avoiding anything that could hinder a fair trial.”

“While the two statements in question were inadvertent and in no way intended to either disregard the court’s order, or disrupt the ongoing trial, I can see how these two statements, however brief and passing, could be considered by the court to be a breach of the court’s order,” he said.

“I regret having made these statements,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “I take this matter very seriously and will make every effort to ensure that the difficulties occasioned in this instance will be avoided in the future.”

The lawyers again charged in April that Mr. Ashcroft violated the gag order when he publicly described the government’s key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, as a “critical tool” in the war on terror.

Koubriti, 24, of Detroit, and Elmardoudi, 36, of Minneapolis, were convicted in June of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. A jury also convicted Hannan, 34, of Detroit, of a document fraud-related charge and acquitted a fourth defendant.

Last week, Judge Rosen admonished federal prosecutors in the case for withholding documents that he said “should have been turned over” to defense attorneys, and ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit and the FBI to look for additional documents that should have been made available.

A ruling on a motion for a new trial in the case is under consideration, but is not expected for several weeks.

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