BANGALORE, India – Mobbed by TV cameramen, journalists and supporters, a 27-year-old doctor flew home to a hero's welcome Sunday in southern India after being freed from jail in Australia when terror charges against him were dropped.
Looking relaxed and smiling, Mohammed Haneef was whisked from the airport to his family's home, where a celebratory feast was being held, after flying from Brisbane, Australia, earlier in the day. Haneef's jailing had aroused waves of sympathy in his native India.
"What can give a mother more happiness? My child is free and he is coming home," Haneef's mother, Qurrath-Ul-Ain, said as she passed around sweets to cousins and neighbors at her home, which was decked out with strings of jasmine flowers, balloons and streamers.
In an emotional TV interview earlier, Haneef said he had no knowledge of his relatives' alleged involvement in a failed British terror attack last month and would not have kept quiet if he had.
Haneef had been arrested July 2 at an airport in Brisbane as he was about to fly to India to see his wife and newborn daughter — just days after his second cousins in Britain were arrested in a failed terror plot.
Haneef was released Friday after Australia's chief prosecutor Damian Bugg said there was no evidence to support the charge that he provided reckless support to a terrorist organization. Haneef had given his cell phone SIM card to his cousin Sabeel Ahmed — who is now accused in one of the June bomb plots — when he left Britain for Australia a year ago.
In a paid interview broadcast Sunday on Australia's Nine Network, Haneef said supporting a terror organization was against his nature.
"I never imagined, even in the remotest corner of my brain, that I would be labeled with such a defaming thing," Haneef said
Appearing close to tears, Haneef said if he had suspected his relatives — Sabeel and Kafeel Ahmed — were planning bombings in Britain, he would not have kept it to himself.
"I would have let the parents know first, who are the main sufferers now," Haneef said. "I really feel for them."
Kafeel Ahmed is believed to have set himself ablaze after crashing an explosives-laden Jeep into Glasgow Airport in Scotland last month, and remains in a hospital with critical burns. British police have charged Sabeel Ahmed, 26, with withholding information that could have prevented an act of terrorism.
Australian Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said Haneef was free to leave the country following his release from jail, but that his work visa remained canceled.
Peter Russo, Haneef's lawyer, noted that his client was leaving Australia voluntarily — he had not been deported — and would appeal Andrews' decision to revoke his work visa on character grounds at an August court hearing.
Russo also suggested that officials should consider offering Haneef an apology.
"He is not expecting one (an apology) but I guess if the people who are in line for being sued want to mitigate their losses they might want to think about apologies," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio from India.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Monday shrugged off the suggestion.
"Australia will not be apologizing to Dr. Haneef," Howard told reporters in Sydney. "Dr. Haneef was not victimized and Australia's international reputation has not been harmed by this 'mis-start' to its new anti-terrorism laws."
Andrews said Sunday the withdrawal of the terrorism charge against Haneef did not change the evidence that led to the revocation of his Australian work visa. He did not elaborate.
There have been mounting calls in Australia for the doctor to be allowed back to work. His employer, Gold Coast Hospital, said his job is waiting for him if he regains his visa.
During a brief news conference outside his family home in Bangalore, Haneef did not talk of his time in jail but thanked his family, lawyers, and "my supporters here in India, and Australia and around the world."
"It's like a festival for us today," said Haneef's brother, Mohammed Shuaib.