Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

9-18 Guv Goes to Sudan

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- For awhile it appeared Gov. Bill Richardson's timing was way off.
Why would he pull off his Sudan prisoner rescue so quickly that it looked easy? And why do it on a weekend in which the media were consumed with 9/11, the beginning of the political campaign season and the kickoff of the NFL season?
Richardson left for Khartoum saying he would stay as long as it took to secure the release of Paul Salopek and an interpreter and driver from neighboring Chad. He also said he hoped they'd be back before the November election because he had other responsibilities then.
Accompanied by Salopek's wife and the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Salopek's employer, Richardson left on Thursday and arrived in Sudan Friday night. Surprisingly, negotiations began immediately. In a matter of 45 minutes, President al-Bashir agreed to release all three men to Richardson.
The governor and his entourage left in a rickety government plane on Saturday morning for the war-wracked state of North Darfur, where the prisoners were held.
When they arrived at the prison at noon, they were told that the papers authorizing the releases had not yet arrived and that a scheduled trial would commence as soon as the judge returned from lunch.
The trial turned out to be the reason for Richardson's haste. This judge already had sentenced a reporter from another country to two years in prison on a similar spy charge. Other reporters had suffered worse fates, including beheading. The trial must be avoided.
After hours of waiting, the judge returned and ordered the hearing to begin. Thirteen minutes into the trial, the judge abruptly announced that he was stopping the trial and releasing the prisoners immediately.
Thus ended 34 days of captivity for the three. They all boarded the government plane back to Khartoum, where they thanked President al-Bashir and headed home.
And so, what appeared to be a cakewalk from this end, turned out to be a harrowing experience for the participants, who were up against a time crunch all the way.
The speed of the mission left many of us back here figuring Richardson knew before he left that the hostages would be released and all he had to do was go pick them up and do a little showboating.
But a source very close to the governor tells me it wasn't that easy. During a trip to Washington to argue for federal flood assistance that had been denied, Richardson met with the Sudan ambassador, who had been Richardson's interpreter 10 years ago, when he negotiated the release of three pilots from a rebel faction in Sudan.
Richardson received a pledge that the ambassador would make an effort to get the prisoners released. Several days later, the governor received an official invitation from the Sudanese president to go to that country for talks.
This gave Richardson reason for optimism, but he knew from experience that international negotiations always involve uncertainty.
One thing is certain. Richardson's trip was necessary. Sudan's president was not about to open the prison door and tell the men they could leave. He wanted a delegation from America to increase his prestige.
Richardson stressed that no deals were made to secure the prisoners' freedom. That goes without saying. He had no deal-making authority. He hasn't on any of his missions, all of which have been successful.
This success can't but help burnish his qualifications for high national office. At a time when America can't even get along with its friends, here's someone who has been able to walk defenseless into negotiations with the world's biggest despots and come out a winner.
Imagine what he might do as an official representative of the United States. With a bag of goodies in his pocket, including foreign aid, for a change, he might work wonders.
And remember, he also negotiated for flood assistance that had been denied by a Republican administration. I didn't ask which was easier.
MON, 9-18-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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