Pakistan sentences French journalists

A Pakistani court has convicted two French journalists for violating the country's visa regulations but suspended the six-month jail terms for a week to allow an appeal.

    The French pair pleaded guilty to the charges

    Defence lawyer Nafees Siddiqui applied for a suspension immediately after reporter Marc Epstein and photographer Jean-Paul Guilloteau of French weekly L'Express were found guilty and sentenced. 

    Judge Nuzhat Ara Alvi also fined the journalists 100,000 rupees ($1,725) each. Siddiqui said he would appeal on Monday against the conviction and sentence at the provincial Sindh High Court. 

    The French pair pleaded guilty to charges that they visited Quetta, capital of southwestern Baluchistan province near the Afghanistan border, without the proper visas. 

    The two were arrested by Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on 16 December in the southern port city of Karachi when they returned from Quetta where they said they went to investigate the possible presence of Taliban fighters. 

    Bail application

    Judge Alvi had refused their bail application on 20 December,
    but the pair were bailed on 24 December on the orders of the
    provincial high court. 

    "I was expecting only a fine but not imprisonment as they
    entered Pakistan on a valid visa but committed an irregularity by visiting Quetta. It is not a charge for which they should have been sentenced to prison," Siddiqui said.

    Police handcuffed the two journalists in the courtroom after
    the guilty verdict. Asked how he felt, Epstein, who was ringed by policemen, said: "I am not in a position to say anything but you can guess it." 

    The two journalists were allowed to go back to their hotel after they paid the fine, Siddiqui said. 

    Maximum punishment

    "I was expecting only a fine but not imprisonment as they entered Pakistan on valid visa but committed an irregularity by visiting Quetta. It is not a charge for which they should have been sentenced to prison" 

    Nafees Siddiqui
    Defence lawyer

    State prosecutor Mahmood Alam Rizvi said the maximum punishment for the offence was three years' imprisonment. 

    The court had confiscated the passports of the journalists after their arrest and the documents remain with the authorities despite orders by the provincial high court to return them. 

    Their Pakistani translator Khawar Mehdi Rizwi, who was arrested along with the two French journalists, is being held at an undisclosed location. His case is likely to be heard on 13 January. 

    The two journalists had visited Pakistan several times in the
    past and arrived on 7 December for their latest trip.

    They entered the country with valid visas that allowed them to visit the cities of Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

    RSF critical

    The Paris-based journalists' rights group, Reporters without Borders (RSF) on Saturday called on the French foreign ministry to "put its foot down" over the jailing of the two journalists.

    "We are worried and we think there must absolutely be a broader mobilisation, because nothing guarantees that they will be freed in the coming days," said head of RSF, Robert Menard.

    SOURCE: AFP


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