US Attorney General John Ashcroft
has been accused of taking steps
that threaten constitutional liberties

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri was given the desgination on Monday for allegedly assisting al-Qaeda members to settle in the United States after the 11 September 2001 attacks for more strikes, said the Justice Department.

He was transferred to Defence Department custody from a US jail.

“The Bush administration…is invoking the laws of war in the United States to justify locking people up without charge and without access to a lawyer,” said Wendy Patten, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

The group says under US law the designation can only be made in cases of direct participation in an international armed conflict.

As an enemy combatant, al-Marri could face a court-martial before a US military commission. He is the first non-American to receive the designation.

Mark Berman, al-Marri’s lawyer, said he had been unable to speak to his client for almost three weeks.

“I’m disappointed that the attorney general, rather than provide criminal defendants with due process, chooses a forum in which the defendant can be denied constitutional rights, not the least of which his right to counsel,” he said.

Al-Marri was in US custody under a criminal indictment, accused of lying to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents about calls he made to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE telephone number was used by a man with links to Mohammad Atta, believed by the US to have masterminded the 11 September attacks. 

He had pleaded innocent and was to face trial in Illinois next month. 

There are no plans to move al-Marri to a military prison at the US Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 680 suspects are being held in inhumane conditions without charge as part of Washington's “war on terror”.