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British journalist released from Gaza jail

March 11, 2010 12:24 P.M. (Updated: March 12, 2010 9:56 P.M.)
Gaza – Ma'an – A British journalist who was accused of threatening state security in the Gaza Strip was released without charge and deported to Israel on Thursday, after nearly a month in a Palestinian jail.

"I've been through a lot in the past few days and weeks," documentary filmmaker Paul Martin said upon arriving at the Erez crossing with Israel, speaking at a news conference during which he termed his release "a great victory for freedom of the media."

Martin was detained on 14 February and interrogated by Hamas-allied intelligence officers over interviews he was conducting with Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. No formal charges were ever announced.

A military court extended his detention by 15 days on 1 March, at which time the de facto Ministry of Interior insisted the journalist was being treated in accordance with international law. On Thursday, however, the attorney general in Gaza ordered his release.

"The government responded to international appeals by media figures, politicians and foreigners for the release of the journalist," said Ahmad Yousef, undersecretary of the de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Martin was released and deported without charge, Yousef said.

Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar said the journalist's release came in response to demands by locally based South African and British diplomats. The European Union was also involved, he told reporters at his home.

But Zahhar insisted Martin's arrest and deportation were legally permissible, provoked by "serious security issues."

Among the allegations, the Hamas leader said, were that Martin "sought to distort the image of Palestinians by going to tunnels, trying to prove that Hamas smuggles weapons, that we used children as human shields during the war -- none of which he could substantiate."

Zahhar also pointed out that the journalist was never denied access to a lawyer or consular officials.

Martin is believed to be the first foreign national to be arrested since Hamas took full control of Gaza in 2007. The de facto government has since insisted that the detention was a unique case, and that foreign journalists are otherwise welcome in the coastal enclave.

Gaza police have been tight-lipped about the investigation, preventing reporters from attending a hearing to extend Martin's term in jail, as increasing concern mounted in the international and journalistic community.

"We welcome the release of Paul Martin. However, the circumstances of his arrest and detention remain a cause for grave concern - in particular, the fact that the charges against him were never made public," said David Dadge, director of the International Press Institute, in a statement.

"The court hearings were held behind closed doors, and he was held incommunicado for 26 days. Incidents like this are likely to serve as a deterrent for any journalists considering visiting Gaza for their work, and they are particularly damaging to the reputation of Hamas, which claims to be a legitimate governing body," he added.
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