15 July 2007

After 114 days in captivity, BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was freed. A ceremonial appearance with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah marked the first step towards freedom. One ray of hope during his captivity, he indicated, was a small radio that conveyed efforts by his colleagues in the BBC and elsewhere to keep his cause alive.

Several factors helped save Alan. Details out of Gaza mentioned military pressure by the armed wing of Hamas including a battle the evening before the release in which a key figure in Jaish (Army of) Islam, Abu Khaled, a short man with long hair wearing Pakistani style outfits, was severely wounded, captured, and then released. Though giving themselves a religious name, that "Jaish" is mainly composed of one family headed by Mumtaz Daghmash, whose earlier actions aimed at seeking ransom. With Alan Johnston, they made the impossible demand that the British authorities release jailed instigator "Abu Kutada." Perhaps some money changed hands but not much -- enough to compensate some foot soldiers. What is known is that the deputy commander of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, Ahmad Jaabari, found a way to persuade Daghmash that a swift release was in everyone's best interest. As a prelude, a "fatwa" was obtained from a noted Salafi (revisionist) Sheikh Suleiman El-Dayeh. Immediately afterwards, at 3:30 a.m., the BBC correspondent was let out of a guarded house in Beit Hanoun, north of Gaza city. Johnston did not realize that his freedom was in hand until he was taken to meet Jaabari who drove him to a waiting Mr. Haniyah and a number of his ministers. Dazed but admirably self-confident, and remarkably poised, Johnston lent his ear to another prominent Hamas leader, the influential Mahmoud Zehhar who volunteered consecutive interpretation. It is these difficult moments that show the mettle of people and Alan Johnston showed gracious dignity and exceptional poise.

Interestingly, the Damascus-based Hamas leader had informed Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem about the imminent release. To make a point, the Foreign Minister in turn telephoned the British Charge d'Affaires Rudy Dremmond to tell him that Johnston will be released within the next few hours.

Obviously, helpful parties had their reasons. Hamas sought to polish its image internationally, particularly with the media. It also wanted to present new credentials of keeping order in a terribly chaotic zone. There was also a hint to the West about who has more credible leadership -- who would be able to deliver: Hamas in Gaza or Abbes in Ramallah. No doubt, also, Damascus sought to connect positively with the new British Prime Minister, particularly concerning a delicate issue on terrorism whose potential victim was a fellow Scotsman.

Whatever the reason, the release of our BBC colleague shows that the worldwide campaign on his behalf was meaningful. It gave him the stamina to keep hoping and gave us all the responsibility to keep trying. Freedom of the press is an inalienable human right inscribed in article 19 of the Charter of Declaration of Human Rights. No one can take it away.

And the release of Alan Johnston -- after four months of captivity -- shows that public opinion has its impact and that freedom of the press works.