Comment: Frenchmen released but Pakistani still behind bars
By Sarfaraz Ahmed
There is no doubt about the Pakistani government’s role in getting French journalists Joel-Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau released from prison. While a lower court had sentenced each of them to six months’ rigorous imprisonment, the Sindh High Court reduced the imprisonment, without setting aside the conviction, by doubling the amount of their fines. There are some interesting reports as to what preceded the High Court judgement. They claim the Pakistan government had assured the French embassy in Islamabad that the reporter and photographer of the French newspaper “L’Express” would not receive a harsh punishment. The “imprisonment” could even have been for the period between the hearing and rising of the court—less a punishment than a mark of admonishment and displeasure over what they had done. But the lower court, to the chagrin of the government, handed down a six-month sentence. The trial court judge was however gracious enough to suspend the sentence for one week to enable them to file an appeal in the high court.
As reported in the press, the attorney general of Pakistan, Makhdoom Ali Khan, was in the court although he was not issued a notice to be present since it was the first hearing of the appeal, which showed the government’s keenness to bring to an end a case which had attracted international attention. The journalists had been found guilty of violating Pakistan’s immigration laws, to which they pleaded guilty before the court. Throughout the affair, the government was faced with a predicament. Speaking at a press conference at Karachi on Tuesday, the foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri made mention of his French counterpart ringing him up many times over the issue. According to Mr Kasuri, the judicial process has been concluded and M Epstein and M Guilloteau had pleaded guilty to the violation of Pakistani laws. “The Pakistan judiciary is entirely independent,” he told the news conference.
He also said it was pertinent to point out here that the Pakistani nationals who migrate to other European countries due to economic reasons are sometimes arrested by local police and both the police and media in those countries have in the past unfortunately sensationalized these arrests and levelled all kinds of allegations against the prisoners. They have ultimately been found innocent by the countries’ judiciaries. Prior to the prisoners’ exoneration, however, these Pakistani citizens and their families have been put under extreme emotional and other pressures.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and some newspapers editorials demanded the release of the Frenchmen, together with their Pakistani facilitator. Although M Epstein and M Guilloteau have been released, the fate of the facilitator, Khawar Mehdi, is still in grave doubt. The government is going hard on Mr Mehdi, whom it considers either a non-journalist, or a little known one at best, and therefore unimportant. That is what I gauged from the foreign minister during his luncheon meeting with newspaper editors and columnists on Tuesday. President Pervez Musharraf recently mentioned Mr Mehdi in an annoyed tone. “He did all for just $2,000,” he said of Mr Mehdi’s assistance to M Epstein and M Guilloteau. “He could have taken from me $3,000 for not doing what he really did,” said General Musharraf, insisting that such acts were against the interests of the country and its people.
Mr Mehdi must recall these words with fear while the two French journalists are relieved that their ordeal is over. In all fairness, Mr Mehdi must be released. He facilitated the two Frenchmen. The crime, if any, was theirs, not his. They have been set free because of foreign pressure. But clearly domestic views in favour of Mr Mehdi don’t matter to General Musharraf since they don’t constitute any pressure on him. How sad.