WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. administration has lifted a ban on a planned visit by a leading European Muslim critic of the Iraq war, a U.S. official said today, in a move hailed by a rights group as a victory for civil liberties.
The scholar, Professor Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University, said the decision showed what he called a new U.S. willingness to permit critical debate.
He had been barred from the United States due to alleged terrorism ties, which he denies.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the State Department had also decided to end the exclusion of another prominent scholar, Professor Adam Habib of Johannesburg University, who had been critical of U.S. counterterrorism policies.
"The orders ending the exclusion of Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan are long overdue and tremendously important," said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, saying this was "a major victory for civil liberties".
"For several years, the United States government was more interested in stigmatizing and silencing its foreign critics than in engaging them. The decision...is a welcome sign the Obama administration is committed to facilitating rather than obstructing the exchange of ideas across international borders."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision about Ramadan meant that if he applied for a visa in future "he will not be found inadmissable based on the facts that led to the previous denial."
The official said the decision was based on a "specific exemption" to U.S. immigration rules after consultation with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
"Professor Ramadan remains subject to all other standards of eligibility" should he apply for a U.S. visa, the official said.
Ramadan, who has Swiss citizenship, told Reuters that as a result of the decision he would apply soon for a visa to visit the United States.
Campaigners have championed the case of Ramadan and Habib as part of a pattern of scholars and writers being excluded due to unwarranted or unspecified U.S. national security grounds.
The United States has revoked Ramadan's visa several times since 2004. Washington initially gave no reason for its decision, but later said Ramadan had been barred based on a provision of the USA Patriot Act that allows people to be excluded for supporting terrorism.
The ACLU argued the government was using the provision more broadly to deny entry to people whose political views they did not approve of.
Habib was detained and interrogated about his political views and associations when he arrived in New York in October 2006 for meetings with groups such as the World Bank and ACLU.
In an interview, Ramadan told Reuters he remained barred from several Arab countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia and he had little hope these bans would be lifted anytime soon.
Ramadan said he was unpopular with some Arab governments because he had criticized them for what he described as failing to support the Palestinian people and seeking to place the responsibility for the Palestinians' situation on the West.