Sudan to release jailed Tribune correspondent
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 9, 2006
KHARTOUM, Sudan -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson secured the release of Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Paul Salopek and his Chadian driver and interpreter on humanitarian grounds after a 45-minute meeting Friday with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Richardson said Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is to be released into his custody Saturday in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, where Salopek and the two Chadians were awaiting trial on charges of espionage, passing information illegally and printing false news, as well as entering the country without visas.
Salopek, 44, was on a scheduled leave of absence from the Tribune and on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine when he was detained.
"The president said, `This is your lucky day,'" Richardson said in a telephone interview from Khartoum, describing what he said was a "friendly" meeting with al-Bashir.
"I was surprised but confident. I figured there was a 50-50 chance," Richardson said. "I figured it would take more time."
Richardson said he planned to fly Saturday morning to El Fasher and return with Salopek to Khartoum before flying back to the United States. The Chadians are to be repatriated to their country after landing in Khartoum, he said.
The Sudanese government confirmed the release without additional comment.
Richardson, a former congressman, energy secretary and United Nations ambassador who 10 years ago negotiated the release of three Red Cross workers held by Marxist rebels in Sudan, led a contingent that included Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski.
"I am deeply grateful to President al-Bashir for releasing Paul on humanitarian grounds and restoring our family," Lynch said. "Paul and I apologize for his entering the country without a visa. Our gratitude extends immeasurably to Gov. Richardson for his remarkable compassion toward me and Paul."
Lipinski expressed her own gratitude and relief.
"It's been a long three weeks since we learned of Paul's disappearance," she said. "We are elated by today's developments. Linda and I reached out to Gov. Richardson after learning of Paul's detention, and the governor has worked tirelessly with us to try to gain Paul's release and that of his Chadian colleagues.
" ... We had hoped that this meeting would end as it did, and we are very grateful to the governor and President al-Bashir for arranging Paul's release on humanitarian grounds."
Lipinski also thanked "dozens of people inside and outside the U.S. government, including the embassy here, who have been working steadfastly to see to this day. Those of us at the Tribune and National Geographic are enormously grateful to them all."
Salopek said he was "dancing in the moonlight. ... It's terrific news. It's been a long 33 days."
"We were steeling ourselves for the trial," Salopek said in a phone conversation with Lipinski. "This is quite a surprise. I realize I have an enormous beer tab to pay off and I look forward to dispensing it."
Chris Johns, editor in chief of National Geographic, hailed the announcement as a "victory for freedom of the press."
"I am overjoyed that Paul Salopek and his Chadian assistants will be freed and I thank Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for it," said Johns, who traveled to meet Richardson in Sudan. "I am grateful to Gov. Bill Richardson and Ambassador Khidir Ahmed [the Sudanese envoy in Washington]. Both have worked tirelessly with National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune to secure Paul's release."
Men deny criminal offenses
Salopek, a resident of New Mexico, was detained Aug. 6 in Darfur by forces loyal to the Sudanese government. He and the Chadians, driver Idriss Abdulraham Anu and interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa, were formally charged Aug. 26 in El Fasher and were scheduled to go to trial Sunday.
The three men denied the espionage and other criminal charges, although Salopek acknowledged entering the country illegally, a civil violation.
ast week, Richardson met in Washington with Ahmed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, who was his interpreter during the 1996 mission. A formal invitation to the Democratic governor to meet with the Sudanese president followed.
Richardson arrived in Khartoum on Friday, expecting the meeting with the Sudanese president to take place Saturday. Shortly after landing, Richardson said, he was informed that al-Bashir would meet with him Friday night, at the president's home.
The meeting, which Richardson described as "jovial," included Cameron Hume, the U.S. charge d'affaires; Calvin Humphrey, Richardson's foreign policy adviser; and Pahl Shipley, Richardson's spokesman.
Also present was Abdulhalim al-Mutaafi, the governor of Khartoum state, and the Sudanese national security adviser.
Hume, the top U.S. diplomat in Sudan, compared the immigration violations to "a parking problem, not a crime, and it simply wouldn't be worth" putting Salopek and the Chadians in jail.
"It was obvious early on [in the meeting] that the Sudanese had made the decision to release Mr. Salopek," Hume said. "While public pressure had been moderate to release him, it would only be more acute if they had imprisoned him, and I think they saw no benefit in putting Paul Salopek in jail."
`Personal connection helped'
Richardson said he believed "the personal connection helped," referring to his 1996 dealings with al-Bashir.
"I separated the political differences from the humanitarian differences [and said] this would be viewed as a humanitarian gesture," the governor said. He said he emphasized that Salopek is not a spy and that he is a journalist "doing his job."
During the meeting, according to Humphrey, al-Bashir said, "When I announce this, the Sudanese people will say, `What about our people in Guantanamo Bay?'"
An estimated five Sudanese are listed on a U.S. government roster of Guantanamo detainees, but it is not clear from government records whether any of the five have been released between 2002 and May 2006, according to documents.
The president asked Richardson to relay his concerns to the Bush administration, as well as his wish to see the Sudanese treated properly and released. Richardson made no promises but said he would convey the message to the administration.
Despite stated concerns about Sudanese detainees in Guantanamo, Humphrey said, "the president said clearly that he'll send the instructions" Friday night to authorities in Darfur that Salopek and the Chadians be released Saturday.
"We're very confident ... but once we're home we won't have to be worried about anything," Humphrey said in an interview.
Richardson also has traveled to Iraq, North Korea and Cuba to gain the release of detainees.