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Sunday, August 27, 2006

U.S. journalist in Darfur court for espionage

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - An American journalist appeared in court in Darfur on Saturday on charges of espionage and entering the country illegally, his lawyers and other sources said.

Paul Salopek, a writer on assignment for National Geographic magazine and also a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was arrested last week for crossing into Sudan via Darfur's long and porous border with neighboring Chad.

"He obtained an adjournment for two weeks for us to prepare our case," said his lawyer, Mohamed Khalil. "The court atmosphere was very good."

Khalil did not confirm the exact charges facing Salopek but two other U.S. sources said he had been charged with espionage and entering the country illegally.

The Chicago Tribune, owned by Tribune Co., released a statement on Saturday defending Salopek's innocence.

"Paul has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune for more than a decade. He has an impeccable reputation for integrity and for serious work dedicated to the dignity and worth of people everywhere," Tribune Editor and Senior Vice President Ann Marie Lipinski said in a statement.

She said the company was working to secure his release and appealed to the Sudanese government to bring him safely home.

Salopek, who took a leave of absence from the Tribune to freelance for National Geographic, has won two Pulitzer Prizes while working as a reporter for the Tribune, Lipinski said.

During the early part of Darfur's 3-1/2-year-old conflict, Sudanese authorities denied foreign journalists permission to travel to the region and heavily censored the national press.

Many reporters then crossed illegally through Chad to cover the fighting, which created what U.N. officials called the world's worst humanitarian crisis with 2.5 million having fled their homes to miserable camps.

Authorities have improved procedures for journalists to travel to Darfur through Khartoum, but some who find it difficult to get Sudanese visas still decide to enter through Chad.

A Darfur court earlier this month sentenced a Slovenian presidential envoy, Tomo Kriznar, to two years in prison and a fine for espionage among other charges. He had also crossed into Darfur from Chad.
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