Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Al Jazeera Spain Correspondent Sentenced to Prison on Charges of Collaborating with al Qaeda

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Al Jazeera correspondent, Taysir Allouni, rose to prominence after conducting the first interview with Osama bin Laden after 9/11. A Spanish court has just sentenced him to 7 years in prison on charges he aided al Qaeda. We go to Spain to speak with journalist Lamis Andoni, who currently works as a consultant for al Jazeera. She was with Taysir Allouni one of the three times when he was arrested on charges of collaborating with al Qaeda.

A Spanish court has sentenced al Jazeera correspondent Taysir Allouni to 7 years in prison after convicting him of collaborating with al Qaeda. Allouni was convicted along with 17 other men.

Among them, a man identified by prosecutors as the leading al Qaeda figure in the country, Syrian Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, also known as Abu Dahdah. He was accused of organizing a meeting in northern Spain in July 2001 in which final preparations for the September 11 attacks are alleged to have been made. According to the prosecution, the meeting was attended by alleged 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.

The prosecutions were brought by the famed Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, famous for his indictment of Augusto Pinochet. He has been criticized widely by human rights groups for these current prosecutions, saying they are based on political motives rather than actual guilt. As for al Jazeera's Allouni, the network says it is appealing his sentence. Allouni gained fame by broadcasting the first interview with Osama bin Laden, from Afghanistan, after September 11.

Allouni has lived and worked in Spain for many years. His boss, Al Jazeera news editor Ahmed Sheikh, told his station that the conviction marked "a black day for Spanish justice."

Lamis Andoni, Longtime independent journalist covering the Middle East. She is currently a consultant for al Jazeera. She was with Taysir Allouni one of the 3 times he was arrested by Spanish authorities in connection with this case.

AMY GOODMAN: We wrap up the show on the Spanish court sentencing of the al Jazeera correspondent, Taysir Allouni, to seven years in prison after convicting him of collaborating with al Qaeda. We go now to Spain to Lamis Andoni, longtime independent reporter. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. We only have a minute. Can you tell us about the sentencing of this al Jazeera reporter?

LAMIS ANDONI: Yes. Three years ago, Taysir was detained and charged with first, innocently, belonging to al Qaeda and then collaboration with al-Qaeda. And when we discovered that it was [ inaudible ] evidence, mostly phone calls that they were monitoring, and they tried to reconstrue those phone calls to indict Taysir. And although the hearings proved him innocent of those – like that, the phone calls were – had proved nothing. Then they started talking about his interview with bin Laden. He had an exclusive interview with bin Laden a few weeks after 9/11, during the bombing of Afghanistan, and for obvious reasons, because he was the only TV journalist in Kabul, because al Jazeera had had an office in Kabul for two years before 9/11 or two years and a half, as well as because Allouni at the time was the [inaudible] and al Jazeera for the interview since al Jazeera had had an agreement then with – about information sharing and including the interview with CNN. So during the hearing, the prosecution came --

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds. Lamis, we have 20 seconds.

LAMIS ANDONI: Yeah. Okay. He used the interview to try to prove that Taysir [inaudible] collaborations with bin Laden. And we think at al Jazeera that these are foundless allegations. Al Jazeera stands by Taysir.

AMY GOODMAN: Lamis Andoni, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll continue to follow this story. Lamis Andoni, who works with al Jazeera.

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Taysir Alluni: A reporter behind bars

Some images from Afghanistan were too distressing to show Taysir Alluni could never have suspected that the 9/11 attacks and the US war against Afghanistan in its hunt for al- Qaida and Taliban leaders would dramatically change his life.

Alluni, who began his career as an Arabic translator for a news agency in Granada, Spain, is credited as being the only journalist based in Afghanistan in October 2001 to show the world what the US war machine was doing to one of the world's poorest countries. By then working for Aljazeera, Alluni was able to capture images of civilian victims in the destitute villages of Afghanistan and the miserable streets of Kabul. His coverage triggered international outrage over the US action in Afghanistan.

Alluni's work in that war-torn country came to an end when US forces bombed Aljazeera's Kabul office just hours before the Northern Alliance entered the Afghan capital. While many say the office was deliberately targeted, Aljazeera keeps an open mind, while still asking for an official investigation. Alluni left Kabul shortly before his office was bombed, following the Taliban retreat and reporting on it.

Much of what he witnessed was too distressing to show and he was himself assaulted. "Scenes that, I'm sorry, I could not describe to anybody," he said. Beaten and mugged, Alluni has not said who attacked him but described the incident as leaving him "in deep psychological shock". Back to Qatar Alluni returned to Doha, Qatar, exhausted and with mixed emotions. Although professionally satisfied at being able to report the war - reportage that earned him international recognition - the images of suffering were painful to carry.

A respected member of staff, the appreciation he received from his colleagues back in Doha helped Alluni recover from his stint in Afghanistan and surgery he underwent in the Qatari capital. To war zone once more Despite his deteriorating health, Alluni headed to Baghdad in the second week of the US war on Iraq in March 2003 on his next assignment. While reporting there, he once more narrowly escaped a US bombardment. That he survived the US bombing of the Aljazeera Baghdad bureau is little short of a miracle. Aljazeera continues to pursue an official response to this attack - an onslaught that killed his colleague, Aljazeera reporter Tariq Ayub.

Behind bars

When US President George Bush officially declared the Iraq war over, Alluni chose Spain as his destination for a holiday, thinking that his Spanish citizenship would help him avoid harassment and facilitate his movements.

His hopes proved to be unfounded. Syrian-born Alluni, a father of five, was arrested in September 2003 at his home in Granada. He is accused of being a member of a group in Spain belonging to al-Qaida. Alluni was bailed on medical grounds about a month later. He has a serious heart condition.

However, he was re-arrested in November 2003 for fear he may flee the country while awaiting trial. He remains behind bars, a situation that has sparked outrage among Arab human rights groups, journalists and colleagues, who describe this controversial prosecution of this very modern Arab icon as nothing more than an attack on the freedom of the press.

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