Taysir Allouni, a veteran Al-Jazeera war reporter and the only journalist
to have interviewed Osama bin Laden post-9/11, was sentenced last month by a Spanish
court to seven years in prison for collaboration with al Qaeda. He was absolved,
however, of membership in the organization, putting to rest the rumor that a journalist
had posed as an al Qaeda agent.
The case stemmed from a transaction Allouni carried out in 2000 with a businessman named Mohammed Bahaiah, a fellow Syrian and former neighbor of his in Spain, who had moved to Pakistan and developed business contacts with the Taliban. After selling his house and moving to the Middle East, Bahaiah asked Allouni to deliver the remaining $4,500 still owed him by the buyer of his house. Allouni paid Bahaiah out of his own pocket and was later reimbursed in Spain by the buyer. The Spanish judges saw the transfer as equivalent to material support for terrorism, since the money ended up in the hands of Bahaiah, whom they linked to al Qaeda. Allouni maintains that he delivered the money as a favor to someone who had provided him valuable knowledge about the Taliban.The case provoked a discussion about just how much is lost in translation when a foreigner’s way of doing journalism brushes up against the laws of his country of residence. During the trial, media outlets were abuzz with the same recurring question: Was Allouni an undercover al Qaeda sympathizer or just an ordinary reporter using unorthodox means to cover the Taliban? By his own testimony, Allouni was never aware that his reporting activities could be construed as criminal. His sentencing demonstrates that journalists living in countries, like Spain, with stringent anti-terror legislation are not free to exchange favors for journalistic access. Furthermore, the trial’s legacy could provoke new laws restricting journalistic freedom in Europe and abroad, with England and Australia now discussing draft proposals to govern journalists in the handling of terrorism cases.After the Madrid bombings in March 2004, the Spanish government came under considerable pressure to produce results in its anti-terrorism campaign. Allouni’s case was part of a widely publicized trial involving 17 defendants — ranging from small players all the way up to the alleged mastermind of al Qaeda operations in Spain — that tested Spain’s initiative to deal with terrorism via judicial rather than military means. Pedro Rubira, the Spanish public prosecutor who brought the charges against Allouni, had said he wanted this largest-ever European trial of al Qaeda suspects to set a long-standing precedent. One of the judges handling the case told Arab Human Rights Commission spokesperson Haytham Manaa that he didn’t want to repeat a “mistake” that he and his colleagues had committed when they released a terrorism suspect found dead after the Madrid attacks. Allouni’s wife, Fatima Al-Zahra, says that since his trial was the first case against terrorism after the bombings, the defendants became “guinea pigs.” “We are the victims of the judges’ initial mistake,” she concludes. “We are the ones paying for it.”The 450-page judgment pointed out that “journalistic truths, like all other truths, cannot be obtained at any price” and found Allouni guilty of committing “the wrongdoing of collaborating with a terrorist group.” Since Allouni’s contacts with some of the trial’s other defendants began before his time at Al-Jazeera, the court declared that Allouni couldn’t have cultivated these relationships out of journalistic concerns, because he had “no proven journalistic activity” at the time. Allouni says he kept constant journalistic watch during his relations with Taliban intermediaries, even when carrying out favors for them: “I brought [Bahaiah’s money], and that is not a bad thing . . . If you refuse, you are looked upon badly,” he explained to the court. “What is more, I was interested in these people because of the information that I needed.” The judges were not receptive to that justification — which tidier journalists would probably have frowned upon — arguing that had his reporting aims “been achieved using methods that did not require punishment, it would merit recognition as a sign of his great worth; but when this achievement is the result of previous wrongdoings, the professional must face up to the consequences of the law.”The eventual sentences handed down did not constitute the authoritative indictment the Spanish authorities had hoped for, with some defendants freed, Barakat Yarkas (the suspected leader of al Qaeda in Spain) cleared of murder and Allouni absolved of membership in al Qaeda. A judge later told Fatima that her husband’s presence in the case was “annoying,” and that he was disturbed by the media attention. “This was in a way positive for the remaining accused,” she says. “If Taysir hadn’t been there, the sentences would’ve been harsher.”Spain’s exceptional anti-terror legal infrastructure, developed during years of combating the Basque separatist ETA organization, and criticized in a January 2005 Human Rights Watch report for its “use of incommunicado detention and secret legal proceedings,” allowed for the indictments, which, according to critics like Al-Jazeera chief editor Ahmed Sheikh, could not have occurred elsewhere: “If these charges had been brought in an English court, the judge would have surely thrown them in the dustbin.”
Concerned observers of the trial objected to the pivotal role that Allouni’s
bin Laden interview played in the prosecution’s case. Reporters Without Borders
said that prosecutor Rubira’s frequent reference, especially in his closing statements,
to the interview — journalistic material that the court never accepted as evidence
— “makes it impossible to rule out a link with the defendant’s job as a journalist
and therefore with freedom of expression,” adding that “if it had only been a
case of terrorism, the prosecutor should never have used this interview as part
of the accusations.” During cross-examination, the sharp-tongued Rubira told Allouni,
“You look as though you were interviewing your boss.” As to the substance of the
interview, Al-Jazeera consultant and Allouni representative Lamis Andoni (who
was with Allouni at the time of his arrest) wrote in the Spanish El Mundo
newspaper, “A reading of the interview’s transcript, as published by CNN, clearly
proves that Taysir delivered a highly professional performance challenging bin
Laden’s statements on Islam’s position of killing civilians.” The Arab Human Rights
Commission’s Manaa told Al-Jazeera that one of the judges he spoke to “operates
as if he is an expert on evaluating the nature of journalists, maintaining that
Al-Jazeera hired Taysir Allouni because he had connections and not because of
his talent for journalism.” Such evaluative judgments made their way into the
verdict, with the judges questioning Allouni’s as well as Al-Jazeera’s journalistic
integrity: “Allouni’s journalistic worth prior to carrying out the bin Laden interview,
especially considering his inability to substantiate it, does not constitute enough
of a reason for a TV station that has unique media capabilities in the Arab world
to establish a contract with him.”
Allouni’s supporters claim he is the victim of guilt by association, for contacts he had cultivated as a member of Spain’s small and close-knit Syrian community. One of the noteworthy features about Allouni’s case was how much the judges’ pretended knowledge of Arab or Muslim cultural matters factored in their determination of guilt. In response to Allouni’s claim that he transferred money to Bahaiah’s family in Afghanistan “for humanitarian reasons” and as a courtesy after their offer of information about the Taliban, the judges wrote: “Taysir helped them not out of that sense of helping which forms part of the favors that all good Muslims should do for their fellows, but in order to obtain . . . exclusive information on al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.” After the trial, one of the judges told Andoni, “You Muslims have customs that are illegal in Spain,” specifically hawala, the custom of tranferring money without charging un-Islamic interest or ringing up conversion fees. The court scrutinized Taysir’s every recorded move, asking questions like “Why did your wife hem your neighbor’s trousers?,” and also hired “terrorism experts” to evaluate the defendants. One controversy surrounded the Arabic word shabab, literally meaning “young guys,” which the experts interpreted to refer exclusively to members of al Qaeda, rather than to the neighbors or the camera crew with whom Allouni most often used it. The experts, Andoni says, were relying on an old conception of the word, coined during the first Intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to refer to resisters, who were invariably youths.
Al-Jazeera chief editor Sheikh said the Spanish court’s ruling marked
“a black day for Spanish justice” and that “it curtails freedom of speech and
the freedom of journalists to do our job.” The verdict endangers the process of
journalistic infiltration, made popular by war correspondents of the past. Jean-François
Julliard of Reporters Without Borders said it “sets a dangerous precedent, particularly
for anyone who seeks to interview bin Laden in the future,” and International
Federation of Journalists general secretary Aidan White warned that “Now reporters
will have to think twice about who they are talking to when preparing their reports.”
As an Arab and Muslim man, Allouni was the kind of journalist the Taliban could
tolerate; his religious bond afforded him unique access to a world impenetrable
to journalists who didn’t want to take the immersion approach. Ironically, CNN
and other Western media repeatedly used Allouni’s footage of the war in Afghanistan
(where Al-Jazeera had the only operating bureau, later destroyed by an American
bomb), while criticizing the practices that made such coverage possible. CNN had
entered a partnership agreement with Al-Jazeera to share Allouni’s bin Laden interview;
Al-Jazeera deemed it of insufficient journalistic value and chose not to air it,
leaving CNN with the only broadcast.
Allouni became attractive to Al-Jazeera as a result of his work with the Granada Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, where he was assigned to study the Taliban and Northern Alliance movements, as well as possibilities for peace between them. Carlos Hernandez, a Spanish journalist working for Antena 3 channel, met Allouni on assignment in Afghanistan, and testified at the trial, recalling a conversation they’d had about 9/11: “He said he looked down on violence to achieve objectives because he thought it was brutality toward the victims and counterproductive for the Arab cause.” Forbidden to leave Spain after his initial incarceration, Allouni covered the horrific aftermath of the Madrid bombings for Al-Jazeera, interviewing grieving parents and reminding viewers that the Spanish people had been targeted despite their opposition to the Iraq war.Some wonder how things would have panned out had Allouni not been an Arab and Muslim Al-Jazeera journalist from the expanded “axis of evil.” Allouni’s lawyer Jose Luis Galan told reporters, “No one can have any doubt that if my client had been a journalist with Fox News rather than Al-Jazeera, he would not be on the stand today.” Haytham Manaa noted the relative media blackout in Allouni’s case compared to the clamor to free kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas. Andoni, herself a Palestinian journalist, evoked the stereotype of the inherently unprofessional Arab reporter as an influence: “If you’re working for an Arab newspaper, you can’t be objective or fair.”Al-Jazeera has resolved to return to the courts: “We will take his case to the highest court in Europe,” said Sheikh. The network is assembling an international legal team to take the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of Allouni’s wife, Fatima, who must now provide for their five children on her own. Manaa’s commission is preparing an 800-page report documenting the trial, to be presented to the European Commission on Human Rights. “Spain complies with it, so we won’t have to go through this special, newly erected judicial system that represents the worst of special laws in Europe,” said Manaa. Al Qaeda, in another move sure to be counterproductive for Allouni as well as the Arab cause, has weighed in on the verdict, posting a video via the Internet threatening the Spanish judges who sentenced Allouni.On the Al-Jazeera English-language Web site, an animated cartoon by the artist Shujaat shows Allouni being stabbed by a torero with the insignia “Spanish Justice” on his uniform; once Allouni’s been killed and dragged off, a fuming-mad bull representing the “free press” corners the torero in a gesture of vengeance. Despite such hopes, Allouni and his supporters are still waiting for the media bull to materialize. In Fatima’s opinion, the Spanish newspapers that supported the prosecution accepted accusations as proof from the get-go and stifled alternative voices: “I knew journalists who were in sympathy with Taysir, but they couldn’t publish anything positive about him.” They apologized to her afterward, she says.

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