American Journalist Held in Sudan To Be Freed

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 9, 2006

EL FASHER, Sudan, Sept. 8 -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek said from a Sudanese prison Friday night that the government would soon release him and two Chadian colleagues after a 34-day confinement on charges of espionage and producing "false news."

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir agreed to release Salopek after meeting with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. The three men are expected to be freed Saturday, Richardson's office said in a statement.

Salopek, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was arrested Aug. 6 while working on a story for National Geographic magazine about the Sahel region that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara.

Richardson traveled to Sudan with Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski. National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns met the group in Khartoum. Salopek and his wife have a home in New Mexico.

Salopek, 44, will return to the United States with Richardson, though the details of their trip have not yet been finalized. Also being freed are Salopek's Chadian interpreter, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, and his driver, Idriss Abdulraham Anu.

"All three of us, Mr. Idriss, Mr. Suleiman, are all gratified," Salopek said by phone from prison here in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state.

Salopek, a veteran foreign correspondent with extensive experience in Africa, and his two colleagues crossed into the Darfur region of western Sudan without visas. Many journalists have made similar journeys over the past several years, taking advantage of Sudan's porous border with Chad to cover a conflict in a country that often restricts journalists.

Salopek was captured by a rebel group that had begun working with the government. He was later transferred to government custody and charged with the visa violation and the potentially more serious allegations of spying and writing "false news." He was scheduled to go on trial Sunday and faced two years in prison if convicted.

Salopek said he hoped his experience would not prevent other journalists from coming to Sudan to cover Darfur, where a three-year-old war is accelerating and a humanitarian crisis has grown more dire.

"We just hope and plan the story will continue to be covered," he said. "I probably will stay on the other side of the border, in Chad."

Richardson's office said in the statement that the governor was invited to Sudan to discuss the case in large part because of his long relationship with Bashir and Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed. Richardson is a former member of Congress and ambassador to the United Nations.

"The successful end to this unfortunate episode is a victory for journalism and a free press," Richardson said in the statement. "Most important, these three men will return home safely to be with their families, friends and colleagues who were relentless in their appeals to have them freed."

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