The Home Office would not confirm the move, saying it would breach confidentiality to comment on specific cases, but other government officials and Sheikh Ghannouchi himself said the decision was taken in the past few days but not made public.
Sheikh Ghannouchi, leader of the An-Nahda (Rennaissance) political movement in Tunisia, originally came to Britain two years ago on a Sudanese diplomatic passport granted thanks to the intercession of Hassan Turabi, leader of Sudan's National Islamic Front. This passport has since been handed back, and the Sheikh is hoping to obtain UN travel documents.
The Tunisian authorities have accused Sheikh Ghannouchi of being one of three Islamic leaders behind a worldwide conspiracy. The others were Mr Turabi and Omar Abderrahman, the blind Egyptian sheikh under investigation in the United States for links with the bombers of the World Trade Center. On 30 August last year, a Tunisian court sentenced Sheikh Ghannouchi to life imprisonment for being behind an Islamic extremist plot to overthrow the government. An-Nahda denied the charge.
The Tunisian authorities have been incensed by Britain's treatment of the Sheikh. They are outraged that he is given airtime by the BBC for broadcast back to Tunisia when the law prohibits the broadcast of interviews with IRA spokesmen. By granting Sheikh Ghannouchi refugee status, Britain is showing it refutes the Tunisian contention that he is dangerous.
Sheikh Ghannouchi still fears for his safety. He does not appear in public. To meet him entails going to the house of an associate, so that his home cannot be identified. At a meeting in north London he said his movement was opposed to the 'dictatorial regime' running Tunisia under President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali.
The Tunisian government has gone out of its way to show that An-Nahda is an obscurantist movement that would set the status of women back to the middle ages. Tunisia has some of the most advanced legislation for women in the Arab world. Today, celebrated as National Women's Day, records the gains made by personal status laws introduced by the former president, Habib Bourguiba. His successor, President Ben Ali, has created a new Ministry of Women's Affairs and appointed a woman, Naziha Mazhoud, as minister to head it.
Sheikh Ghannouchi denied he was against women's emancipation. Asked if he favoured polygamy he replied, 'I am the only politician in Tunisia to have only one wife.'