U.S. to bring charges against Bilal Hussein

After more than 19 months detention, the U.S. authorities have said they will finally bring charges against Iraqi AP photographer Bilal Hussein. But they are still not saying what evidence they have against him.
By Menassat.com Staff
Free Bilal
This picture of the execution of three election workers was part of a team effort, including Bilal Hussein, that won the AP a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

The 36-year old Bilal Hussein was part of an 11-member team of Associated Press journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2005. But Hussein's career came to an abrupt end when he was arrested in April 2006 during a routine search of his Ramadi apartment by U.S. troops.

He has been in U.S. custody ever since.

The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said earlier this week that Bilal Hussein is "a terrorist operative who infiltrated the AP.” The Pentagon claims to have "convincing and irrefutable evidence that Bilal Hussein is a threat to stability and security in Iraq as a link to insurgent activity.”

But the Associated Press has always maintained that Hussein is 'nothing more than a reputable AP journalist doing his job', and that the allegations were unfounded.

In response to the Pentagon's most recent claims, AP Associate General Counsel Dave Tomlin said: "That's what the military has been saying for 19 months, but whenever we ask to see what's so convincing we get back something that isn't convincing at all."

Bilal Hussein has become a cause celebre for Iraqi journalists.

At stake are both the legal vacuum under which the U.S. authorities in Iraq can hold suspects without charge for any length of time, and the way journalists operate in the Iraqi war theater.

Hussein's case has been taken up by reputable organizations such as Reporters without Borders (RsF) and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“That Bilal Hussein has been held for more than 19 months without charge and on the pretext of unsubstantiated, shifting allegations is deeply alarming,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon this week. “While we welcome the military’s belated attempt to give him his day in court, we are equally alarmed that he continues to be denied due process and that his legal team has no idea what the evidence is against him so they can prepare a proper defense.”

Reporters Without Borders called on the U.S. authorities to act transparently.

“It has taken more than a year and a half for the U.S. military to initiate judicial proceedings against this journalist and yet they still have not revealed the charges,” the press freedom organization said. “The judicial vagueness surrounding this case is disturbing and unacceptable. Hussein’s lawyers will have to appear in court without being able to prepare their client’s defense as the U.S. authorities refuse to say in advance what evidence they have.”

Even if the U.S. finally brings formal charges against Hussein the end of this month, Hussein is not out of the woods yet.

A Pentagon spokesman said that there was a "possibility" that Hussein could continue to be held if the Iraqi court decides not to try him or if he is found not guilty.

"Provisions allow for somebody to be held as a security detainee if it's determined that they continue to be a threat to coalition forces or to the Iraqi people," the spokesman told the AP.

Apart from the legal issues, Hussein's case is also symptomatic of the problems Iraqi journalists face on the job.

If they establish contact with Iraqi insurgents, as is necessary for them to do their jobs, they risk being branded as insurgents themselves by the U.S. military.

On the other hand, if they work for the Western media, they risk being killed by insurgent death squads.

One of the claims the U.S. military has made in emails to the AP's defense team is that Hussein had taken photographs so synchronous with bomb attacks that it seemed that he had prior knowledge of the attacks.

But the AP says it has done its own investigation into Hussein’s work, which included interviews with Mr. Hussein, 36, and an examination of the 400 photographs he produced for the AP, and that it had found no evidence supporting the military’s allegations.

“We believe that Bilal Hussein has been singled out because of his work as a journalist", Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, said in an interview this week.

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident.

Over the last three years, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ, U.S. forces have held Iraqi journalists for weeks or months without charge or conviction.

In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents.

In addition to Bilal Hussein, the U.S. military continues to hold Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj in detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Al-Haj, first detained in Pakistan in December 2001, has not been charged or provided due process.

(Sources: AP, CPJ, RsF, The New York Times.)

More information: www.ap.org/bilalhussein.