By: Sheikh Sabir, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Two French journalists who had been sentenced to six months for violating their visa in Pakistan after traveling without permission near the Afghan border were freed on appeal Monday.
A judge at Sindh High Court reduced the sentences imposed Saturday on reporter Marc Epstein and photographer Jean-Paul Guilloteau from six months to seven days. Since they had already spent that long in police custody, they were set free.
The release of the Frenchmen, who work for the French magazine L’Express, follows diplomatic moves in their case, including a telephone call by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri last week.
“This is a good decision. We are happy on this decision,” said Nafees Sadiqui, a defense lawyer. He said the journalists, who were present in court on Monday, were also “very happy and excited.”
Sadiqui said he hoped to obtain the men’s passports so that they could leave Pakistan by late Monday.
Judge Zawar Hussain Jafery increased the fine against the two journalists from $1,750 to $3,500 each. The return of their passports would be subject to payment of the fine.
The two men were originally sentenced in a court in Karachi for traveling to the southwestern city of Quetta, which lies about 30 miles from Afghanistan, without permission. Police said their visas only allowed them to travel to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Pakistani officials have said the men were involved in making an allegedly fake documentary showing Taliban rebels sneaking into Pakistan from Afghanistan — a sensitive issue here, but they were only charged with violating their visas.
The men have said they were doing their jobs as journalists.
French diplomats were present in court on Monday in Karachi, the southern city where the journalists were arrested Dec. 16, along with a Pakistani journalist, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who was working with them and is still in custody.
The Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders had demanded all three journalists be released.