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Journalists' defence lawyers pull out of trial over witness ban

(RSF/IFEX) - 18 June 2010 - Reporters Without Borders is deeply disturbed by the conduct of the trial of four senior members of the opposition daily Rai Al Shaab - editor Ashraf Abdelaziz, deputy editor Abuzur Al Amin, political editor Altahir Ibrahim and news editor Ramadan Mahgoub - on charges of terrorism and spying.

The head of the defence lawyers, Kamal Elgizuli, announced on 16 June, five days after the trial started before a criminal court in north Khartoum, that they were pulling out because the court was refusing to hear testimony from three of the four defence witnesses on the grounds that they were members of the opposition and their testimony consisted only of hearsay.

"We condemn the court's refusal, which violates the rights of the defence, and we demand that this trial conform to international standards guaranteeing the right to due process," Reporters Without Borders said. "In a case in which journalists risk being sentenced to hang, the court cannot deprive the defence of essential witnesses."

The press freedom organisation added: "We are of the view that the journalists' lawyers are acting with integrity. They are withdrawing out of respect for the defendants, because they want to publicly denounce the court's violations of judicial procedure."

The lawyers gave a press conference on 16 June at which they explained that they were being prevented from performing their role and their duties adequately.

The court has given the journalists three days, until 20 June, to choose new lawyers, failing which the judges themselves will appoint new defence lawyers. The trial is scheduled to resume on 21 June.

If found guilty, the journalists could be sentenced to death by hanging under Sudan's anti-terrorism law. "We are extremely shocked by the sentence the four journalists are facing just for doing their job of providing news and information," Reporters Without Borders said.

The journalists were charged with spying and terrorism after being arrested last month for publishing information that was deemed to be false.

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