Sep 28, 2005

taysir alouni sentencing


            On Monday a Spanish court sentenced Taysir Alouni , a fifty year old al Jazeera television reporter with a heart condition, to a term of seven years for “collaboration with a terrorist organization.” Alouni had been al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Afghanistan during the Taliban era, one only of a couple of television reporters based full time in Kabul who covered the ultra fundamentalist movement. The evidence that was used to convict Alouni was that in 2000 he had given $4,500 to some Syrians living in Afghanistan who were alleged to have been part of al Qaeda. An important part of the supposed evidence of Alouni’s collaboration with al Qaeda was also an interview he conducted with Osama bin Laden six weeks after the 9/11 attacks.


            Spanish prosecutors did not prove that Alouni had any knowledge that the Syrians he gave the money to were part of al Qaeda. Indeed, an entirely innocent constriction can be put on Alouni’s delivery of money to them. Alouni is a dual national of Syria and Spain and so delivering money to his own countrymen is hardly evidence of a criminal offense. Indeed, if it were a crime to deliver cash to people in Afghanistan before 9/11 many journalists, including myself, would be found guilty. At the time there were no functioning banks in the country and no way to wire money to people. Even today, in the city of Kabul there is only one ATM for three million people, and credit cards are not accepted anywhere in the country.


            Because of the gossamer-thin charges nature of the charges against Alouni on the delivery of money to the supposed al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, Spanish prosecutors had to hang part of their case on Alouni’s post-9/11 interview with bin Laden. Chief prosecutor Pedro Rubira said to Alouni during the trail “you look as though you were interviewing your boss.” In fact, Alouni interrupted bin Laden at one point during the interview and pressed him on how he could justify the 9/11 attacks asking him:  “How about the killing of innocent civilians?” Bin Laden replied “We kill the ….civilian infidels in exchange for those of our children they kill.” Alouni pressed him again: “How about the Twin Towers? Bin Laden replied: “The Towers are an economic power and not a children's school.” Bearing in mind that conducting any interview with bin Laden at the time involved being surrounded by his many armed guards, Alouni conducted a professional interview. (For reasons that al Jazeera has never convincingly elucidated the interview was not aired until CNN broadcast the interview some months after it took place.)

            By the logic of the Spanish prosecutors, journalists who have interviewed bin Laden in the past such as myself, Peter Arnett, Scott Macloed of Time magazine, Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper in Britain, John Miller of ABC News and several other Arab and Pakistani journalists are in some way connected to al Qaeda. And if this logic started being applied in other cases it would become a criminal offense to meet with and report on the insurgents in Iraq.


            At one point during the trial prosecutor Rubira opined that it was ‘suspicious” that al Jazeera had posted Alouni to Afghanistan. Quite what he meant by that is unclear, but what is suspicious in this case is that a journalist may spend the next seven years in jail for doing his job, which by its very nature required him to be touch with people both in the Taliban and al Qaeda.