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Detained French journalists announce hunger strike, Pakistani journalist's whereabouts remain unknown

(PPF/IFEX) - On 22 December 2003, French journalists Jean-Paul Guilloteau and Marc Epstein, a photographer and reporter, respectively, for the French weekly magazine "L'Express", announced they were going on an "unlimited hunger strike, effective immediately." The two journalists were arrested on 16 December for violating visa regulations.

In a letter released to the press from Malir District Jail, the two journalists said, "We feel we are journalists who have only done our jobs, and we do not understand why we are being treated as criminals and detained against our will. Therefore, we hereby refuse to ingest food and will only drink water."

Their lawyer, Nafis Siddiqui, however, told PPF that after a telephone call to the weekly's editor and lawyers in Paris, he was asking Epstein and Guilloteau to refrain from starting a hunger strike and await the outcome of the legal process.

On 22 December, Siddiqui filed a bail application at the Sindh High Court and is attempting to arrange for a hearing as soon as possible. An earlier bail application was rejected by a lower court on 20 December.

According to the First Information Report (criminal complaint), the French journalists were arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) at their hotel in Karachi on 16 December for visiting Quetta without valid permits and for having violated a provision of section 14 (2) of the Foreigners Act.

Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, a local journalist who was assisting Guilloteau and Epstein, also remains in detention. No formal charges have been brought against him. He has not yet had access to lawyers or his family members.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) expressed concern that Rizvi's whereabouts are not yet known. In a 22 December statement, CPNE Secretary General Jabbar Khattak said the French journalists were arrested by the FIA in Karachi on the grounds that they did not have a visa allowing them to visit Quetta. Khattak noted, however, that their Pakistani colleague did not require permission to travel to Quetta.

Khattak said that while the French journalists' case is pending in the courts, the authorities should reveal Rizvi's whereabouts. Khattak also said the charges against Rizvi should be made known, so that he can defend himself.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) also called for the immediate release of the two French journalists and their local colleague, Rizvi.

In a 21 December statement, PFUJ President Ahfaz-ur-Rahman said that Epstein and Guilloteau are bona-fide, professional journalists who arrived in Pakistan through the proper channels, on press visas in their capacity as journalists, even though, in the view of the authorities, they did not obtain permission to go to Quetta.

The PFUJ president observed that it seems that the FIA, "disregarding and ignoring the facts, is trying to portray the entire matter in an overblown manner." Ahfaz-ur-Rahman said that while Epstein and Guilloteau are in jail, the FIA is refusing to divulge any information regarding Rizvi's whereabouts, which "amounts to a "brazen violation of basic human rights."

Ahfaz-ur-Rahman said the FIA's intent can be gauged by the fact that it is trying to brand Rizvi as a fake" journalist, even though he has worked with an English daily in Islamabad and has been associated as a freelance journalist with various French newspapers and news agencies, including TF1, "Liberation", Arte, France 2 and "Le Monde".

The PFUJ president said the government should release the three journalists immediately and remove all artificial obstacles in the way of journalists working in the country.

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