Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was charged with espionage and two other criminal counts in a Sudanese court Saturday, three weeks after he was detained by pro-government forces in the war-torn province of Darfur.
Salopek, 44, who was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine, was arrested with two Chadian nationals, his interpreter and driver. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for years.
Chicago Tribune Editor and Senior Vice President Ann Marie Lipinski called Salopek "one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy.
"Our fervent hope is that the authorities in Sudan will recognize his innocence and quickly allow Paul to return home to his wife, Linda, and to his colleagues," Lipinski said. She added: "We are deeply worried about Paul and his well-being, and appeal to the government of Sudan to return him safely home."
Salopek was on a scheduled leave of absence from the Tribune when he and the two Chadians were detained Aug. 6 and jailed. All three were officially charged Saturday with espionage, passing information illegally and writing "false news," in addition to a violation of Sudan's immigration laws by entering the country without a visa.
A judge in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state in western Sudan, granted a defense motion for a continuance, delaying the start of the trial until Sept. 10.
The hearing lasted about 40 minutes before the judge granted the continuance.
In the week since editors at the Tribune and National Geographic learned of the arrest of the three men, they and others have protested and worked through political and diplomatic channels in the U.S. and overseas to secure their release.
Chris Johns, National Geographic's editor in chief, said Salopek was on assignment to write an article on the sub-Saharan African region known as the Sahel.
"He had no agenda other than to fairly and accurately report on the region," Johns said. "He is a world-recognized journalist of the highest standing, with a deep knowledge and respect for the continent of Africa and its people."
Salopek has been in telephone contact with National Geographic and Tribune editors and earlier this week was visited by a congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).
"Paul did a very foolish thing coming into the country without a visa and he knows that," Shays said in an interview Saturday. " . . . He knew he made a mistake. But it's not in anybody's interest--in their or our governments--to have this blown out of proportion. This is a reporter doing what reporters do. They don't have any designs against the government. They're just reporting what they see."
The charges come amid increasing signs that diplomatic efforts to resolve the continuing crisis in Darfur are failing. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, who has called the situation in Darfur dire, is leading a mission that she hopes will persuade the Sudan government to accept an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.
The presiding judge in Salopek's case on Aug. 14 sentenced Slovenian writer and activist Tomo Kriznar to two years in prison on charges of spying and publishing false information. Kriznar admitted entering the country without a visa but denied the spying charge. His attorneys are appealing.
Earlier this month, the same judge ordered the deportation of an American who the U.S. embassy described as a college student doing research when detained.
Salopek, who has extensive experience reporting from Africa, had been traveling in Chad, near the Sudanese border. When arrested, Salopek was carrying two U.S. passports--a legal practice, common among journalists and other frequent travelers who require multiple visas--and satellite maps of the conflict zone in Darfur, printed from public Web sites. According to sources, Sudanese officials view the passports and maps as evidence of espionage.
National Geographic became concerned when Salopek failed to show up at a long-scheduled appointment Aug. 17. His last contact with his wife had been Aug. 5.
During Saturday's hearing, the judge allowed reporters and photographers in the courtroom. Omer Hassan, defense attorney for the three men, argued they could not get a fair trial because of prejudicial remarks reported in the media by the governor of North Darfur. Specifically, the governor called Salopek a criminal. The judge ordered that such remarks stop.
Hassan sought a trial delay of three weeks; the judge ordered a two-week continuance.
Salopek, who appeared gaunt, spoke briefly during the hearing, reciting his name, age and marital status.
Salopek's arrest is one more case in an international trend of charges against journalists. A Beijing court on Friday dismissed a state secrets charge against a researcher for The New York Times but sentenced him to three years in prison on a lesser, unrelated fraud charge.
Salopek spent several years as the Tribune's bureau chief in Johannesburg. His 2001 Pulitzer for International Reporting recognized his work on the continent, including his coverage of the civil war in Congo. The Pulitzer board cited Salopek "for his reporting on the political strife and disease epidemics ravaging Africa, witnessed firsthand as he traveled, sometimes by canoe, through rebel-controlled regions of the Congo."
Salopek had reported from Sudan for a 2003 National Geographic story entitled "Shattered Sudan: Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace." He also co-wrote a piece from Africa for National Geographic in September 2005, entitled "Who Rules the Forest?" which examined the effects of war in Central Africa.
Sudan has been racked by civil war for decades. Northern and southern Sudanese leaders signed a peace agreement in January 2005, but that has done nothing to end strife in the western region known as Darfur.
The rebels in Darfur, mostly black African farming tribes, have been fighting the country's Arab-dominated central government. The government has used an Arab militia called the janjaweed to attack rebels and ordinary villagers in Darfur, causing 2 million people to flee their homes and leading to the deaths of more than 180,000, many from disease and hunger.
The Sudanese government tightly controls access to the region, more than 500 miles west of Khartoum.
Salopek, a California native, joined the Tribune in 1996 and has covered Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before his 2001 Pulitzer, he won a Pulitzer in 1998 for explanatory reporting for his coverage of the controversial Human Genome Diversity Project.
Before joining the Tribune, Salopek worked as a writer for National Geographic for three years. Before that, he reported on U.S.-Mexico border issues for the El Paso (Texas) Times. In 1990, he was Gannett News Service's bureau chief in Mexico City.
Salopek's most recent work for the Tribune was a July 30 special section called, "A Tank of Gas, a World of Trouble." Based on Salopek's reporting from four continents, the report documented the United States' addiction to oil.
email@example.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times