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

New York, September 28, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in Dubai to allow for due process in the criminal defamation trial of Mark Townsend, a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Washington Times. The trial is set to begin on Wednesday.

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 about the paper and its treatment of employees and new management, which he denied. He left the paper in January 2009 after four years. Townsend was released after six hours of interrogation under the condition that the authorities keep his passport. They also confiscated his laptop.

In August 2010, government prosecutors charged Townsend with defamation related to the postings under article 373 of the UAE penal code. 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.

“We call on the authorities in Dubai to give Mark Townsend due process, allowing him to present all the evidence that he says vindicates him from these charges,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We ask the authorities to return his passport immediately and to bring this yearlong ordeal to an end.”

Townsend, a British national, told CPJ that he had never written criticism of the newspaper 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?” he asked. “Why would I write these blogs and put my name on them?” Townsend insists that someone is trying to frame him, but added that he has “confidence in the legal process.”

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 the journalist.