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Pakistan court frees French journalists

KARACHI, Jan 12 (AFP) – A Pakistani court Monday freed two French journalists who had been given six-month jail terms at the weekend for violating the country’s visa regulations.

Reporter Marc Epstein and photographer Jean-Paul Guilloteau of the French weekly L’Express, who had been jailed on Saturday, were released after an appeal hearing at Karachi’s provincial high court.

A fine of 100,000 rupees (EUR 1,350, USD 1,725) made against each man was instead doubled to 200,000 rupees by Judge Zawar Hussain Jaffery.

The two men will be free to leave Pakistan as soon as the fines are paid.

“Since the state did not oppose the appeal for reduction in the sentence, they are free to go as soon as they pay the fine,” Jaffery said.

“No purpose will be served by keeping them in prison in Pakistan.”In Islamabad, foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said the journalists were expected to leave Pakistan later Monday.

“They should be on their way to Paris some time during the day,” Khan told reporters. “We are glad that this episode is behind us.”

He stressed however that foreign journalists visiting Pakistan “must respect Pakistani laws.”

Jaffery said the journalists could not be acquitted because they had pleaded guilty and admitted they had gone to the southwestern city of Quetta, bordering Afghanistan, in violation of their visas.

“Therefore the fine imposed on them has been doubled,” the judge said.Jaffery also ordered authorities to return the journalists’ passports, which had been withheld on the orders of a lower court.

The pair was arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency in the southern port city of Karachi on December 16, when they returned from Quetta.

They said they had gone to the city to investigate the possible presence of fighters loyal to the Islamic Taliban regime which ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden until its ouster by US-led forces in late 2001.

Their visas had allowed them to visit only the cities of Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

The Frenchmen were delighted to have been released.

“Today’s order is a good news for me and Paul. If everything goes well, we will be flying back home this evening or maybe by tomorrow. I am looking forward to seeing friends and family,” Epstein told AFP.

“As far as how the past four weeks have been since our arrest, I prefer to wait till I return back (to say).”

He said, though, that “Pakistan is an exciting country and people are wonderful.”

Epstein however expressed concern for the journalists’ Pakistani translator Khawar Mehdi Rizwi, who was arrested with them and is being held at an undisclosed location. His case is likely to be heard on January 13.

“I am very much concerned but have no news about him,” Epstein said.Khan said the investigation was continuing against Mehdi over his alleged involvement in filming of a “fake documentary” on Taliban’s presence in Pakistan.

The French pair’s lawyer, Nafees Siddiqui, said their release was a victory for justice.

“I am happy, they are happy and I am sure their families and even the journalist community must be happy with this judgment,” Siddiqui told AFP.

French embassy officials and Siddiqui were completing formalities to enable the journalists to leave the country.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also hailed the release of the journalists.

“We were in constant contact with Pakistani authorities … I raised the issue several times with my counterpart (Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri),” de Villepin told a news conference during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

The French minister thanked Pakistan for “the help extended while fully respecting the independence of the Pakistani judiciary.”


                                Subject: France news