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U.S. Reporter Heads Home, Freed by Sudan in Espionage Case

September 10, 2006|From the Chicago Tribune

EL FASHER, Sudan — Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek was set free Saturday by Sudanese authorities and began his long flight home.

Salopek's release in El Fasher, capital of the war-racked state of North Darfur, came the day before the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and his Chadian driver and interpreter were to go on trial on espionage charges.

After a 13-minute court hearing -- and hours of bureaucratic delay before that -- their 34 days in captivity ended. "We are stopping the case and we are releasing you right now. And that is all," Judge Hosham Mohammed Yousif told the three men.

Salopek expressed gratitude for the efforts that led to their release.

"We are very happy to be headed back to our families," he said.

"The concern for a long prison sentence was very real."

Salopek, 44, had been on a leave of absence from the Tribune and was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine, his previous employer, when he and the Chadians were arrested Aug. 6 in Darfur by pro-government forces.

On Aug. 26 they were formally charged with espionage, passing information illegally, printing "false news," and entering the country without visas.

Through their attorneys, they acknowledged the civil violation of entering the country illegally but denied the more serious criminal charges, including espionage.

Their release followed weeks of diplomatic efforts involving dozens of public and private figures.

The decisive move came Friday, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in Khartoum, the nation's capital, and secured a pledge to free Salopek along with driver Idriss Abdulraham Anu and interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa.

Richardson argued that the three should be released on humanitarian grounds and said Salopek, a resident of New Mexico, was not a spy but a reporter doing his job.

"It was a humanitarian gesture," Richardson said. "I think this is a triumph of democracy. We can make a difference even if we have wide differences."

Salopek, Anu and Moussa flew with Richardson and his traveling party to Khartoum. The American delegation, including Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski, then left on an overnight flight to Albuquerque. The Chadians were to be repatriated today.

Lynch expressed her relief, describing the efforts to free the men "immeasurable and remarkable."

Lipinski said their release brought "an incredible amount of relief for everybody."

National Geographic Editor in Chief Christopher Johns, who met Richardson in Khartoum and then flew with him to El Fasher on Saturday, said he had worked in Africa for 20 years "and never had a better day than this one."

Richardson, a Democrat and a former U.S. representative, Energy secretary and United Nations ambassador, met Bashir 10 years ago when Richardson negotiated the release of Red Cross workers held by Marxist rebels in Sudan.

Richardson agreed at the request of Lynch and Lipinski to help in Salopek's case.

Working behind the scenes for Salopek's release were Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.); the State Department; and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who led a congressional delegation to Darfur that visited Salopek.

Others who wrote letters to Bashir or issued statements calling for the release of Salopek included the Rev. Jesse Jackson; U2 singer Bono, who has traveled extensively in Africa in support of debt relief and AIDS education; several prominent journalists; and journalism groups such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Reporters Without Borders, the Overseas Press Club and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Salopek won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a Tribune series on the Human Genome Diversity Project, and the 2001 Pulitzer for international reporting for articles on political strife and disease in Africa.

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