By RUTH BERRY and CATHERINE MASTERS

Prime Minister Helen Clark admitted yesterday that she could not back up a statement issued by her office, linking asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui's former political party with al Qaeda.

The statement was issued over a week ago and its accuracy subsequently challenged by a member of Mr Zaoui's former party, the FIS (Islamic Front for Salvation).

Sydney-based FIS member Samir Bennegadi, who visited Mr Zaoui last week, suggested the move may have been deliberately designed to smear him.

The statement listed individuals and organisations designated as terrorist entities, following a United Nations Security Council decision to list them.

The designation denies any of those listed entrance to New Zealand.

It named a James Lounici and said he was linked to three groups including the FIS.

"All these groups have ties to al Qaeda," the statement said.

The UN website which lists terrorist entities does not mention FIS.

Helen Clark distanced herself from the statement, saying the advice came from the police, who refused to comment yesterday.

"I haven't been able to corroborate the police advice to me about the FIS, but I think it probably got caught up in that statement with other aspects of the individual's (Lounici's) associations with, for example, the Armed Islamic Group, which is designated a terrorist entity," she said.

"The police are now looking into why the statement was drafted the way it was."

She conceded it was "probably drawing too long a bow for the statement to say that because he (Lounici) was FIS that was also linked directly with al Qaeda as an organisation."

Professor George Joffe, a specialist in North African affairs from Cambridge University, said any claim the FIS was linked to al Qaeda was "laughable."

"There is no evidence that al Qaeda was operating at the time when the FIS existed. In fact, they didn't exist .

"Secondly, there is no evidence the FIS as a movement espoused or endorsed any of the values that were subsequently associated with al Qaeda." It was a "quite unnecessary smear."

"I can't imagine any Government would willingly inflict upon itself the kind of media damage it seems to be going through."

Meanwhile, the Government has yet to consider a Court of Appeal ruling on Mr Zaoui's petition to be moved out of prison.

Two judges ruled the Algerian's detention in prison was lawful, while one said it breached the Bill of Rights.

Justice John McGrath said his conclusion that Parliament had not provided for conditional release of people in Mr Zaoui's position was reached with reluctance. He said the regulation requiring Mr Zaoui's detention in prison was valid but fresh regulations could allow such a person to be detained at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

He recommended the Government consider changing the regulations.

Helen Clark said yesterday that "officials are still studying the judgement. The key point of that is the Court of Appeal upheld the legality of the detention under the existing law and regulations."

Herald Feature: Ahmed Zaoui, parliamentarian in prison

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