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Captured journalists say Iraqi officials accused them of being spies

AMMAN, Jordan—Four journalists who had disappeared in Baghdad, Iraq, for eight days said Wednesday that Iraqi officials had interrogated them repeatedly about whether they were spies for the United States.

The journalists—Newsday reporter Matthew McAllester, 33, and photographer Moises Saman, 29, and freelance photographers Molly Bingham, 34, and Johan Spanner, 28—described their detention in harrowing terms: They were kept in separate cells, sometimes blindfolded and within earshot of Iraqi prisoners being beaten and moaning in pain.

But they also said they were never physically mistreated and that their captors offered them tea after each session of grilling them over whether they were spies.

"I told them I didn't work for my government. I don't work for any government," said Bingham, of Louisville, Ky., who was in Iraq on assignment for Esquire magazine. "I wanted to know: `Are they going to ask me more questions or are they going to kill me?' "

The four journalists, who had been missing since March 24, appeared at the Jordanian border Tuesday night after a 300-mile drive from the Iraqi capital.

They were never offered an official explanation for their detention, though each appeared before an Iraqi judge before being let go.

Among those they thanked for helping to obtain their release was Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. A Newsday editor, James Rupert, said Arafat had appealed to Iraq's chief of military intelligence.

The journalists said their ordeal began in the early hours March 24 when they were forced at gunpoint from their hotel rooms at Baghdad's Palestine International Hotel and taken to Abu Ghraib prison, just outside the city.

The Iraqi prison officials took their possessions from them and forced them to change into prison-issue pajamas. Their cells were adjacent to one another, but they weren't allowed to communicate.

In the cells across from them, they heard Iraqi prisoners being beaten and then moaning in pain. They could hear and feel the walls shake when the bombing started outside.

"Your hearing becomes very good in that situation," McAllester said.

The interrogations, usually by three men, were always the same: Do you work for the government? Where did you obtain your equipment? What have you done while here? They knew the interrogation was over when the Iraqis offered tea, an Arabic custom for guests.

The journalists called their treatment "humane." Everyone received two blankets, except for Bingham, who said she had three. They also got three meals a day, consisting of bread, cheese, rice, vegetables and chicken soup.

Rupert, Newsday's deputy foreign editor, who traveled to Amman to meet the journalists, said the newspaper sought help from various sources, including diplomats, advocacy groups and other reporters. He said he thought of contacting Arafat after recalling how the Palestinian leader had helped obtain the release of a photographer who was captured in Afghanistan in 1985. Rupert himself was there, he said, working as a reporter.

While the journalists were never told why they were imprisoned, all their visas were problematic. Obtaining a journalist's visa to enter Baghdad from the Iraqi government has been difficult, prompting many journalists to search for alternative visas into the country. McAllester entered with a group of people who were going to act as human shields and stayed after writing a story about them.

"I always thought this job was risky," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time the risks pay off and we call it good reporting. When it doesn't, it is perceived as stupid."

The four were told Monday that they would be released, and they were then placed in a cell together.

Before being allowed to leave, all four said, they were forced to sign statements essentially repeating the answers they had given at their interrogations and to appear before the judge. The Iraqis translated everyone's but Spanner's statements into English before making them sign. Spanner is Danish.

The Iraqi officials assured each journalist that their government was prepared for war. As Bingham signed her statement, a prison official began singing, she said.

He then said to her: "See, we are not afraid; we are singing."

Along the road from Baghdad to the border, they said, they saw burned-out cars and destroyed bridges, but no coalition troops.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.