WASHINGTON -- After a dinner last week with Sudan's ambassador to the U.S., New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Friday that he believed the country would seriously consider releasing Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek on humanitarian grounds.
A spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy echoed Richardson's statement, calling the meeting between Richardson and Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed a positive one.
"We discussed a lot of issues," said the spokesman, Khalid Musa. "I think Sudan will reconsider the status of Mr. Salopek on a humanitarian basis."
He did not elaborate.
Salopek, 44, was arrested Aug. 6 in Sudan's Darfur region while on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine. He was on a leave of absence from the Tribune.
Though correspondents are often charged with immigration violations for crossing borders without permission and swiftly deported, Salopek and his Chadian driver and interpreter were also charged Aug. 26 with espionage and two other criminal counts.
He and his editors at National Geographic and the Tribune strenuously deny the criminal charges, though Salopek has expressed regret for entering the country without a visa, a civil violation.
Since learning of his detention, Salopek's editors and politicians, diplomats and media organizations and executives have appealed to the Sudanese government to release Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.
They include Richardson, governor of Salopek's home state; U.S. Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Barack Obama, both Illinois Democrats; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican; U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, who along with U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume visited Salopek in jail while leading a delegation to Sudan; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, now in the Middle East seeking the release of two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah; and U2 singer Bono, who has traveled extensively in Africa in support of debt relief and AIDS education.
Journalism groups, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Reporters Without Borders, the Overseas Press Club and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have also issued statements and written letters in support of Salopek and the two Chadians, interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa and driver Idriss Abdulraham Anu.
Several other prominent diplomatic and political figures who have asked that their names not be published have contacted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials to appeal for the release of the three men.
They are being held in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 10.
Richardson agreed to work on Salopek's behalf at the request of Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski and the reporter's wife, Linda Lynch, the governor said.
The former United Nations ambassador, who said he doesn't "get involved in these cases unless I get asked," flew to Washington and had a two-hour dinner with the ambassador Wednesday night.
"It was a positive meeting," Richardson said in a telephone interview. "There's a lot of stuff I can't talk about."
Richardson has known the ambassador for nearly a decade. In 1996, when he was a congressman from New Mexico, Richardson flew to Sudan and negotiated the release of three Red Cross workers, an American pilot, a Kenyan co-pilot and an Australian nurse, who had been held by Sudanese rebels.
The translator was Ahmed, who later became the ambassador. Two years ago, the ambassador sent Richardson a photograph of that negotiating session, the governor said, and they have remained friends since.
Richardson said that the personal relationship helped.
"I stressed that it was important for the Sudan to release Mr. Salopek on humanitarian grounds," he said. "I said he was not a spy," that he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he's not well physically."
National Geographic and Tribune editors have said they have growing concerns about Salopek's health and well-being after a month in detention.
Richardson said he did not contact the State Department about the meeting, although he said he briefed Lipinski and Lynch afterward.
The governor said he also was in Washington to try to secure disaster-relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Earlier last week, a high-ranking State Department official brought up the Salopek case in a meeting with al-Bashir. Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state, said she told the president that Salopek "is a journalist, he's not a spy."
She said al-Bashir told her he would look into it as a "humanitarian gesture," adding that she was "given some assurances" about the case. She didn't elaborate on the assurances.
Another State Department official, speaking on the condition that he not be named, labeled the espionage charges "absolutely outrageous."
William Neikirk writes for the Chicago Tribune.