By: Afzal Nadeem, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A Pakistani court on Saturday sentenced two French journalists to six months in prison for visa violations after they traveled to an area near the Afghan border without official permission.
The judge later suspended the jail sentence for one week, allowing reporter Marc Epstein and photographer Jean-Paul Guilloteau to walk free as they prepared to file an appeal.
The journalists, who were working for the French magazine L’Express, were ordered to pay a fine of $1,750 each without delay, defense lawyer Nafees Sadiqui told reporters.
Judge Nuzhat Ara Alvi ruled that the men had violated Pakistan’s immigration laws by traveling to the southwestern city of Quetta without permission.
Both men pleaded guilty. But the defense lawyer argued that his clients had not gone to Quetta with any bad motive and the fines were sufficient punishment.
Police say the Frenchmen’s visas only allowed travel to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Pakistani officials also alleged that the men were involved in making a fake documentary showing Taliban rebels sneaking into Pakistan from Afghanistan — a sensitive issue here — but they were not charged with any other offense.
The two journalists were arrested Dec. 16 in Karachi, a southern port city, along with a Pakistani journalist, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who was working with them and is still in custody. He has yet to be charged.
The Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders has demanded that all three journalists be released.
Chief prosecutor Mahmood Alam Rizvi said he had sought three years in jail for the French journalists.
The same court had granted bail to the Frenchmen on Dec. 24, after they had started a hunger strike to protest their arrest. The journalists have said they were only doing their job.
State media have said that the journalists were planning a report on how Taliban rebels had set up training camps inside Pakistan near Quetta, which lies about 30 miles from Afghanistan.
State PTV network broadcast video apparently confiscated from the Frenchmen showing one of them photographing armed men. The report claimed the armed men were not Taliban and were just posing to earn some money.
Pakistan rejects criticism from U.S. and Afghan officials that it is not doing enough to stop supporters of the former hard-line Islamic regime from launching attacks in Afghanistan, then retreating to Pakistani territory.
An unknown number of al-Qaida fighters fled from Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Pakistan was a staunch supporter of the Taliban for years. But under U.S. pressure, Islamabad abruptly switched sides and allied itself with the United States after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.