Japan minister rebuked over al Qaeda comment

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TOKYO, Oct 30 (Reuters) Japan's top government spokesman criticised Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama today for saying a ''friend of a friend'' was a member of al Qaeda who had entered the country several times on various passports.

Hatoyama made the comments yesterday in defence of Japan's new policy of electronically fingerprinting and photographing almost all foreigners who enter the country from next month.

''His initial statement was most regrettable,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters. ''It was highly likely to be misunderstood, giving the mistaken impression that Japan's justice minister knew a terrorist.'' Hatoyama said today he had apologised to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda for causing him trouble. He reiterated the indirect link to the al Qaeda member but added that the man was only an ''acquaintance of an acquaintance''.

Gaffes by cabinet ministers added to financial scandals to undermine public confidence in the cabinet of Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who suffered a crushing upper house election defeat in July and stepped down in September.

''I thought it was careless, so before the cabinet meeting I urged him to be careful,'' Machimura added.

Hatoyama first said that a friend of his friend was an al Qaeda member who had come to Japan several times, showing the need for the new system for fingerprinting foreigners.

He also said the man, whom he had never met, had been involved in a bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, and that he had been warned to stay away from the island for safety reasons.

Hatoyama later offered some explanation -- saying that he had not known in advance about the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed about 200 people, and that he had alerted immigration authorities when he heard about the supposed al Qaeda member.

Hatoyama said today that he took seriously the view that he should speak more carefully, but reiterated that he had spoken about the facts of the matter.

''There may be a problem with the definition of 'friend' but it was certainly an acquaintance of an acquaintance,'' he said. ''This is why I was saying we should take proper measures.'' Hatoyama came under fire in September for suggesting executions could take place without the justice minister signing a death warrant.

Reuters PD DB1000

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