March 11, 2010 / 9:35 AM / 8 years ago

Hamas frees British journalist in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - A British journalist was freed by the Hamas Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, nearly four weeks after his arrest on suspicion of spying for Israel, Palestinian and British officials said.

<p>British journalist Paul Martin (L) gestures after he was released in Gaza March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem</p>

Paul Martin was detained on February 14 while on a visit to Gaza to give defence evidence in a court case involving a local man accused of working with the Israeli security services.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, told a news conference at which he was flanked by British and South African diplomats that Hamas still held Martin guilty of espionage but would not bring charges. He would instead be deported.

A diplomatic convoy thought to be carrying Martin, a London-based freelance film-marker and reporter with British and South African nationality, later left the enclave for Israel.

Martin’s Gaza lawyer, Sharhabeel al-Zaeem, told Reuters that he had maintained his innocence throughout his detention and insisted that he was a bona fide journalist researching stories.

Zahar said: “He is a spy for Israel.”

His account of Martin’s activities included investigations into whether Hamas was importing arms through tunnels from Egypt and whether its fighters put children in harm’s way during last year’s Israeli offensive, forcing them to act as human shields.

Human rights groups have criticised both Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which rules in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for detaining journalists and placing other curbs on media freedoms.

Zahar, however, rejected that, telling journalists at the news conference that they were free to work as normal in Gaza.

Martin, who is in his 50s, has reported frequently from Gaza, providing freelance reports for television and newspapers.

Britain’s vice consul in Jerusalem, Stephen Brown, said in Gaza: “We’re obviously all relieved that Paul is out.” (Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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