A federal judge has admonished Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) for violating a court order by making remarks about defendants in the nation's first major terror trial after Sept. 11.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen said Ashcroft's statements could have compromised defendants' rights to a fair trial, but that the violations did not warrant contempt charges or require Ashcroft to appear in the Detroit court to explain himself.

"The attorney general's office exhibited a distressing lack of care in issuing potentially prejudicial statements about this case," Rosen wrote in an opinion released Tuesday.

Lawyers for Karim Koubriti (search), Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi (search) and Ahmed Hannan (search) argued Ashcroft had violated Rosen's order limiting publicity in October 2001 when he said the three men were suspected of having knowledge of the attacks. The Justice Department retracted the statement two days later.

The attorneys said Ashcroft again violated the order last April when he called cooperation by a government witness "a critical tool" in fighting terrorism.

Koubriti, 24, of Detroit, and Elmardoudi, 36, of Minneapolis, were convicted in June of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The jury convicted Hannan, 34, of Detroit, of a fraud charge, while a fourth defendant was acquitted.

Rosen noted that an admonishment is the lightest sanction a court can impose on an attorney.

Ashcroft, who apologized earlier to the court in a letter, on Tuesday said in a statement that "I take this matter very seriously and will make every effort to ensure" that such problems don't happen again.

"I appreciate that this matter has been resolved," he added.

Margaret Raben, a lawyer for Elmardoudi, said the admonishment was recognition that "the attorney general is bound by the same rules as anybody else."