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Des Moines officer says newspaper reporter covering protest was arrested after pepper spray shots

Des Moines officer says newspaper reporter covering protest was arrested after pepper spray shots
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An Iowa officer testified on Monday that he arrested a Des Moines Register reporter assigned to cover a Black Lives Matter protest last year after she did not leave the area following his firing of pepper spray shots. 

Des Moines Officer Luke Wilson spoke during the trial for reporter Andrea Sahouri and her then-boyfriend Spenser Robnett, saying he did not know at the time that Sahouri was a reporter, The Associated Press reported. Sahouri and Robnett face misdeamor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. 

The case against Sahouri has received local, national and international scrutiny from journalists and human rights advocates as she is believed to be the first working journalist to be tried in the U.S. since 2018, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. 

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In his testimony, Wilson recounted that he responded outside Merle Hay mall on May 31 where demonstrators were breaking windows and throwing projectiles, such as rocks and water bottles, at officers. He said he fired pepper spray from a fogger to break up the crowd, but Sahouri remained. 

“Once I determined she wasn’t leaving, I had to take action,” he said, according to the AP. 

The officer said he grabbed Sahouri while firing pepper spray with his other hand, which hit both her and Robnett, who returned to retrieve her from custody. Wilson said he had thought he activated his body camera but discovered later that he had not.

Prosecutor Brecklyn Carey told jurors that footage shows police directing a crowd that included Sahouri and Robnett, to disperse at about 6:30 p.m. and shows 90 minutes later Robnett attempting to pull Sahouri away from the arresting officer, according to the AP.

But defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt argued that the 6:30 p.m. order was directed at those blocking an intersection and that the couple followed those instructions. 

He said Sahouri and Robnett ran when tear gas was deployed 1 1/2 hours later, and the officer grabbed and pepper sprayed her while she identified herself as press, to which Wilson allegedly responded, “that’s not what I asked.”

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The Black Lives Matter protests last summer broke out nationally after George Floyd was killed after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. 

Sahouri was among the more than 125 reporters detained or arrested during demonstrations in 2020, with most not being charged or having their charges dismissed. Twelve other reporters still face prosecution, the AP reported, citing the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. 

If the two are found guilty, they would face hundreds of dollars in fines, a criminal record and, although unlikely, potentially up to 30 days in jail on each count.