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Al Jazeera Reporter Charged

A Spanish judge orders the prominent war correspondent held without bond on suspicion of aiding the Al Qaeda network.

September 12, 2003|Sebastian Rotella and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas | Special to The Times

MADRID — A Spanish judge formally accused a war correspondent for Arabic television station Al Jazeera of terrorist activity Thursday, ordering him jailed for alleged financing, logistical support and recruitment for Al Qaeda.

Investigative magistrate Baltasar Garzon ordered Taysir Alouni, a Syrian-born Spaniard, held without bond. Alouni won fame as a correspondent in Kabul, Afghanistan, for obtaining the first interview and first videotaped message from Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Alouni's arrest last week set off an outcry in the Arab world, and Thursday's decision raised the stakes in a case in which journalism, politics, religion and terrorism have converged.

Al Jazeera, a satellite broadcaster with a combative and independent image, finds itself in a clash with a headline-making judge whose reputation is equally feisty. Garzon has prosecuted terrorists, South American dictators and corrupt politicians, but he also has spoken out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Thursday, Garzon filed a 23-page order outlining Alouni's alleged participation in a Syrian-dominated Al Qaeda cell in Madrid that is suspected of having links to the Hamburg, Germany, cell responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. The Madrid suspects have been in jail pending trial for nearly two years.

Alouni's work for Al Jazeera is not central to the case, although Garzon charged that he sometimes used the job as a cover.

In an internal report in December 2001, police raised the suspicion that Bin Laden granted the interview to Alouni because the journalist was a member of Al Qaeda.

Indignant defenders of the 48-year-old reporter said Thursday that he was being persecuted for being a star journalist and devout Muslim.

"We are convinced of Taysir Alouni's innocence and we have every confidence in the impartiality of Spanish justice," Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Balut said in comments on the channel's Web site.

The court document filed Thursday alleges that Alouni helped Mohamed Baiah, a suspected Al Qaeda courier, by letting him stay with him at his home in Granada and use his address to fraudulently renew his immigration status in 1998. During subsequent trips to Afghanistan, Alouni allegedly acted as a courier for the cell. The judicial order alleges that he brought cash in amounts as large as $4,000 to Baiah, a fugitive from Turkish police.

Alouni met frequently with suspects in Spain to discuss sending recruits and funds to Afghan terrorist camps, one of which was commanded by a Syrian-Spanish associate, Garzon charged. Alouni also had repeated contact with friends and a relative by marriage who were under investigation for alleged ties to the Hamburg cell, according to the order.

Alouni says he transported money and opened his home to people under investigation because of Arab hospitality and solidarity, a source close to his defense said. Other contact with suspected terrorists took place in Afghanistan as a result of Alouni's skill in gaining access to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the source said.

Alouni testified that the meetings in Spain were "religious and political discussions," according to Garzon's document. And he told Garzon during an interrogation this week that Baiah, the alleged courier, and the alleged training camp chief, Mustafa Setmarian, were not members of Al Qaeda, the document says.

Times staff writer Rotella reported from Paris and special correspondent Mateo-Yanguas from Madrid.

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