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CPJ calls on the UAE to end journalist's 13-month ordeal

(CPJ/IFEX) - New York, September 28, 2010 - The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in Dubai to permit Mark Townsend, a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the Washington Times, to present evidence he says clears him of any wrongdoing in a criminal defamation case lodged against him. CPJ also calls on authorities to release his passport.

Townsend, 49, a former business editor of Khaleej Times, a 30 percent government owned daily, was detained for several hours in August 2009 after a series of online postings critical of the newspaper appeared on ComplaintsBoard, a consumer review website. The entries were signed "Msend." Authorities accused Townsend of writing the entries critical of the Khaleej Times, treatment of employees and the paper's new management. He left the paper in January 2009 after working there for four years.

Townsend was released after six hours of interrogation under the condition that the authorities will keep his passport. His laptop was also confiscated.

In August 2010, he was charged with defamation under article 373 of the UAE penal code. The trial is set to begin on September 29. According to UAE law, defamation is a criminal matter with a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine of up to 20,000 dirhams (US$5,400). Townsend will stand trial at the Dubai Court of Misdemeanors under the UAE Penal Code, a federal law.

Townsend's lawyer, Abdul Hameed al-Kumity told CPJ that the "evidence of the prosecution against Townsend is not cohesive and not sufficient for sentencing." He added that there is no physical evidence against Townsend.

Townsend, a British national, told CPJ that he had never written on the matter and said that it was evident that the entries had been composed by someone whose native language is not English. He wants to call a language expert to testify. "What would be my motivation? Why would I write these blogs and put my name on them?" Townsend insists that someone is trying to frame him, but adds that he has "confidence in the legal process."

"We call on the authorities in Dubai to permit Mark Townsend to present all the evidence which he says vindicates him from these criminal defamation charges," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "After 13 months of legal limbo, it is critical that our colleague's ordeal be brought to a swift and just conclusion."

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