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Two journalists arrested while covering French association's attempt to fly Darfur orphans to France

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has called for the unconditional release of reporter Marc Garmirian of the Capa news agency and photographer Jean-Daniel Guillou of the Synchro X agency, who have been held since 25 October 2007 in the eastern town of Abéché with members of the French association Arche de Zoé (Zoé's Ark) following an abortive attempt to evacuate African children to France. Garmirian and Guillou were just covering this controversial operation as journalists.

"Must a reporter covering an event be considered an accomplice?" the press freedom organisation asked. "An observer is not a participant. Whatever one feels about this operation, journalists who wanted to write about it cannot be held morally responsible for it. Garmirian and Guillou were just doing their job as journalists and should be freed unconditionally at once. We appeal to the Chadian authorities not to try to exploit the media interest in this case for geopolitical gain."

Garmirian and Guillou were arrested by Chadian soldiers on 25 October while reporting on the evacuation of 103 African children to France on the initiative of Arche de Zoé. In all, the Chadian authorities are holding nine French citizens, including the two journalists, and the seven Spanish crew members of a plane chartered by Arche de Zoé.

Capa has employed Garmirian as reporter and photographer for 10 years. Synchro X, for which Guillou works, is a small agency based in Angoulême in southwestern France.

According to Arche de Zoé, the aim of the operation was to find refuge with families in France for young orphans. The orphans were originally from the Sudanese region of Darfur. The Chadian authorities have accused the charity of "trafficking in children." The detainees were placed in police custody for a 48-hour period which, under the law, can be renewed once for a similar period. The second period expires on 29 October.

William Bourdon, a lawyer who was asked to represent Garmirian on 28 October along with two Chadian lawyers, said: "The judge on duty in Abéché is ill so another judge from N'Djamena is supposed to replace him at short notice, but he is not likely to get there for another three or four days. Without a judge, they cannot be notified of the charges and formally indicted."

When their four days in police custody is up, the Abéché prosecutor is expected to order that the 16 detainees be kept "at the disposal of the justice system" until the judge arrives, Bourdon said, adding that he thought that it was utterly "inconceivable" that Garmirian could be indicted. Garmirian had been following Arche de Zoé since mid-September. His agency sent him to Chad on 17 October.

Guillou first came across Arche de Zoé members in Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami. "We have been following Arche de Zoé's activities for three months," a Synchro X representative told Reporters Without Borders.

"Guillou got there on 15 September and was supposed to return to France on 20 October. His flight back had been booked but he decided to stay as soon as he learned when the children were supposed to leave. He sent us an SMS message from his mobile saying "26 October at 2.15 p.m. (local time),' referring to the time when the children were supposed to arrive in France. That was the last time we heard from him."

Founded as a collective in Angoulême in 1999, Synchro X became a company on 12 July 2006. A small agency employing three photographers and one journalist, it has not as yet hired a lawyer to represent Guillou.

The 16 people arrested in Chad include another journalist, Marie-Agnès Peleran of France 3 Méditerranée. Several sources have told Reporters Without Borders that she was in Chad in a personal capacity, not a professional one. France 3's regional office in Marseille did not want to comment on the case.

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