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Woman journalist jailed on spurious "terrorism" charge for covering a protest; Reuters photographer injured

(RSF/IFEX) - The detention of María Haydee Chicas, a journalist employed by a non-governmental organization, who was arrested along with 13 other people during a demonstration in the northeastern city of Suchitoto on 2 July 2007 and charged with "terrorism", is a "grave abuse of authority," RSF says, calling for her immediate release.

The Association of Journalists of El Salvador (Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador, APES) said in a statement that, "the police committed an arbitrary act by arresting this journalist when she was just performing her journalistic duties." Chicas is facing a possible sentence of 40 to 60 years in prison under a new anti-terrorism law.

"This is clear violation of free expression," RSF said. "It is ridiculous and dangerous to claim that someone who was just doing their job as a journalist was caught in the act of 'terrorism.' We support APES's call for her release and we personally appeal to President Elías Antonio Saca, who as guarantor of the Constitution cannot remain silent in the face of this kind of violation of basic freedoms."

Chicas went to Suchitoto, in the northeastern province of Cuscatlán, to cover a forum organised by community groups and NGOs in protest against government plans to privatise water distribution. Chicas is in charge of press and communications for the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (Asociación de Comunidades Rurales para el Desarrollo de El Salvador, CRIPDES), one of the groups that organised the meeting.

Around 100 peasants who were expected to participate in the forum blocked off several of Suchitoto's streets in a show of protest prior to a visit to the town by President Saca. Initially peaceful, the demonstration turned violent and around 25 people were injured when the police intervened.

The police arrested a total 14 people. Five of them, including Chicas, were arrested while they were inside a vehicle belonging to CRIPDES. At the moment of her arrest, Chicas had been getting ready to film the scene outside. One of the detainees has since been released.

The arrest of Chicas and the others has sparked an outcry from the press and civil society. Around 100 civil society groups have petitioned for their release. APES has appealed to human rights ombudsman Oscar Humberto Luna.

A Reuters photographer, Luis Galdámez, was among those injured during the Suchitoto demonstration.

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