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Journalism watchdog group calls on Sudan to free reporter

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August 27, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Journalism watchdog groups called on Sudan’s government to release a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist who was in custody Sunday on charges of espionage and other crimes.

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Paul Salopek, a U.S. writer for National Geographic magazine, talks with unidentified persons inside a court in Al Fasher, nothern Darfur August 26, 2006. (Reuters)

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "deeply troubled" over Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek’s arrest earlier this month and the charges brought against him Saturday.

"We view these charges as a grave threat to press freedom and call on the Sudanese authorities to see to it that they are dismissed and that our colleague is set free," Joel Campagna, the group’s Mideast program coordinator, said in a written statement on Saturday.

Salopek, his driver and interpreter were arrested Aug. 6 by pro-government forces in the war-torn Darfur region. Salopek, who lives in New Mexico, was working on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine at the time of his arrest.

More than 200,000 have died in Sudan’s remote western region of Darfur since the conflict began in 2003. The U.N. and aid organizations have warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Darfur, saying violence has mounted since a peace agreement was signed in May by the Sudanese government and one of the region’s major rebel groups.

The 44-year-old Salopek is charged with espionage, passing information illegally, writing "false news" and a non-criminal immigration charge of entering the country without a visa. His driver and interpreter - both Chadian nationals - face the same charges.

On Saturday, a judge in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, granted a defense motion to delay the trial until Sept. 10.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who is in Africa on a two-week tour of several nations, said Sunday the U.S. State Department has assured him Salopek’s arrest is a high priority.

"From all indications, this guy is a wonderful reporter, has done terrific work. This is, I think, unacceptable, and I expect the U.S. government to take this with the utmost seriousness," Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, told reporters in Kenya.

Sudanese officials weren’t available for comment Sunday. The U.S. Embassy in the capital Khartoum couldn’t immediately comment.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called the charges "ridiculous" and said Salopek was just trying to cover the "tragic situation" in Sudan.

"An objective media coverage in Sudan is needed so that the local authorities and the international community can effectively assess the situation and take appropriate actions to solve this human drama," the group said in a statement.

Ann Marie Lipinski, Chicago Tribune editor and senior vice president, has said Salopek is not a spy and urged the government to allow him to return home.

In 2001, Salopek won a Pulitzer for international reporting for his work covering Africa. In 1998, he won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting for his coverage of the Human Genome Diversity Project.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut who was one of two U.S. congressmen to visit Salopek last week at the police station in El Fasher, told the Chicago Tribune that Salopek knows he made a mistake by entering the country without a visa but said it isn’t in any government’s interest to have the situation "blown out of proportion."

The Sudanese government has a history of tension with the press and aid groups, which have previously accused Khartoum of unnecessarily restricting access, especially in the conflict-ridden Darfur region.

Most recently, a Sudanese criminal court convicted a Slovenian peace activist of espionage, publishing false reports and entering the country without obtaining a visa. The court sentenced Tomo Kriznar to two years in prison. A Slovenian official acknowledged that Kriznar entered Sudan without a valid visa but denied the accusations that Kriznar was a spy.

The Darfur conflict began when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Arab-led Khartoum government, which responded by unleashing militias known as the janjaweed that have been blamed for many atrocities.

(AP/ST)

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