CHICAGO — 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 his interpreter and driver, both Chadian nationals. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for years.
Ann Marie Lipinski, Chicago Tribune editor and senior vice president, said Salopek is "one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time."
"He is not a spy. We are deeply worried about Paul and his well-being, and appeal to the government of Sudan to return him safely home."
Salopek, a native of Barstow, Calif., received an environmental biology degree from UC Santa Barbara in 1984 and started his newspaper career the next year.
He was on a 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 visas.
A judge in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state in western Sudan, granted a defense motion for a continuance Saturday, delaying the start of the trial until Sept. 10.
Omer Hassan, a defense attorney for the three men, argued that they could not get a fair trial because of prejudicial remarks by the governor of North Darfur that were reported in the media. The governor called Salopek a criminal.
The judge ordered that such remarks stop.
In the week since editors at the Tribune and National Geographic learned of the arrests, they and others have protested and worked through political and diplomatic channels in the United States and other countries to secure the release of the three men.
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.
Salopek has been in telephone contact with National Geographic and Tribune editors.
During a telephone conversation Friday, Salopek said he was "realistic" about the seriousness of the charges against him and encouraged by the "Herculean efforts" being made on his behalf.
"Let's keep our chins up," Salopek said. "We are going in with good hearts."
He was visited last week by a congressional delegation led by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).
"Paul did a very foolish thing coming into the country without a visa and he knows that," Shays said Saturday.
Foreign correspondents at times enter countries without a journalist's visa. Shays said the violation should be put in proper context. "It's not in anybody's interest -- in their or our government -- 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."
Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin, the Senate minority whip, worked diplomatic channels to try to settle the issue but said he was not surprised by the filing of charges, which he called "preposterous."
A spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said, "It is our hope that the Sudanese government would immediately dismiss these trumped-up charges and release this reporter."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is traveling in Africa, has been in close contact with diplomats working on Salopek's case, aides said.
Diplomats say it is difficult to get a clear picture of the case and its possible outcome. 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.
Early this month, the same judge ordered the deportation of a 22-year-old American student who had been detained in Darfur.
Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the group was "deeply troubled by our colleague's arrest and the charges brought against him."
"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."
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 websites. Sources said Sudanese officials view the passports and maps as evidence of espionage.
National Geographic became concerned when Salopek failed to show up an appointment Aug. 17. His last contact with his wife had been Aug. 5.
He joined the Tribune in 1996 and covered Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His 2001 Pulitzer recognized his work in Africa, including his coverage of the civil war in Congo. His first Pulitzer came in 1998 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 Times. In 1990, he was Gannett News Service's bureau chief in Mexico City.
Tribune staff writer Charles Sheehan in Chicago and correspondents Cam Simpson and Mike Dorning in Washington and Jeff Zeleny in Nairobi contributed to this report.