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Trial Begins for Journalist Arrested During US Protest

FILE - Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. (Photo courtesy Katie Akin via AP)

A journalist arrested while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Des Moines, Iowa, last May was in court Monday facing trial on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

Andrea Sahouri, a reporter for The Des Moines Register, was pepper-sprayed and briefly detained after police and protesters clashed during the protest over the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, Sahouri was with her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who faces the same charges.

During the May 31 protest, some protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police. Some also broke store windows and vandalized a Target retail store.

In reaction, police sprayed protesters with tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Sahouri, who was reporting events on Twitter, said she was trying to run away from the tear gas when something hit her boyfriend. She said she briefly stopped to see if he was OK and then proceeded away from the tumult.

Then, she said, officer Luke Wilson pepper-sprayed her and arrested her.

Wilson said he did not know she was a journalist at the time of her arrest.

Sahouri was loaded into a van and jailed briefly.

Jury selected

Early Monday, a six-person jury in the case was selected, and the trial was expected to begin later in the day.

If convicted, Sahouri, 25, could face a $600 fine and would have a criminal record. While she could face 30 days in jail, The Associated Press reported that would be "unusual."

The trial is expected to last two days.

'Violation of free press rights'

The case has attracted the attention of human rights and press freedom advocates, journalism schools and media companies who have asked authorities to drop the charges because, they say, Sahouri was just performing the work of a reporter.

"That this trial is happening at all is a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice," The Des Moines Register's editorial board wrote in an editorial.

Officials have maintained that journalists do not have the right to ignore dispersal orders from police, adding that a similar order had been given 90 minutes earlier.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which tracks "press freedom violations," said it was unaware of a trial of a working journalist in the U.S. since 2018.

The group said more than 125 reporters were detained during the nationwide civil unrest in 2020. Of those, 13, including Sahouri, still could face prosecution.