Islam Salih, Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Khartoum, was released from prison on 25 April 2004, after having served half his sentence.
A court in Khartoum had sentenced him to one month in prison on 10 April but the appeal court cut his sentence by half and reduced his fine to 500,000 dinars (about 1,600 euros at the official rate) after his lawyer Ali Mahmoud Hassanain decided to take the case to the High Court.
Reporters Without Borders strongly regretted that Salih’s release was not followed by the reopening of the Al-Jazeera offices in Khartoum, closed since December 2003.
Call for release of Al-Jazeera bureau chief and end to blackout on reporting in Darfur
Reporters Without Borders today called for the immediate release of Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Khartoum, Islam Salih, who was convicted on 10 April of disseminating false information and sentenced to a month in prison, a fine of 1 million Sudanese pounds (about 3,200 euros at the official rate) and a further month in prison if he does not pay the fine.
The organisation also urged the Sudanese authorities to lift their news blackout on the tragic situation in the western Darfur region, which is the underlying reason for Salih’s unacceptable arrest and imprisonment.
"This imprisonment is just one more example of the intolerable policy pursued by the Sudanese authorities, especially the security services, who are trying to cover up the horrors being committed against the civilian population in Darfur by the government forces and the armed Arab militia they support," Reporters Without Borders said.
The organisation described the blackout that has been imposed on the press as "criminal" and said it had aggravated the crisis. "We have lost count of the number of newspapers closed and journalists detained over the past year for trying to defy the blackout," the organisation said.
"We urge the government to release Salih and to allow all journalists to work freely so that both the Sudanese people and the rest of the world can be told about the situation in Darfur," the organisation added.
Salih and an Al-Jazeera cameramen were detained on 18 December 2003, a day after the security services searched the Khartoum offices of the Qatar-based TV news network despite not having a warrant. The authorities claimed that customs duty had not been paid on material brought into the country. But Salih produced evidence showing the duty had been paid. The Al-Jazeera bureau was closed.
A few days before this, members of the security forces had threatened Al-Jazeera with reprisals if it did not change its coverage of Sudan. A report on Darfur had above all upset the authorities, who accused the network of disseminating false information.
The Khartoum court referred to article 66 of the 1991 criminal code - concerning the dissemination of false information - and article 199 of the Custom Authority Act when convicting Salih on 10 April. Salih, who has appealed, was immediately taken to Omdurman prison.
The fighting that has pitted the Sudanese army and government-backed Arab militias against the rebels in Darfur has reportedly left a toll of 10,000 dead, 670,000 internally displaced and 10,000 refugees in Chad since February.
The authorities have sought to hush up the atrocities committed by the Janjaweed (armed Arab militia riding horses or camels) against members of the Fur African community (including the Masalit, Dajo, Tunjur, Tama and Zaghawas tribes). Human Rights Watch has referred to the situation as a "crime against humanity" while the World Organisation Against Torture has voiced concern about the "spectre of a new genocide."